June 9, 2012

The Era of the Grand Slam

Is it just me, or have we been seeing a lot of career Grand Slams recently?

After a seven-year drought, first there was Roger Federer with the French in 2009, a little more than a year later, Rafael Nadal did it in New York. And now we have this.

I don't know that too many people expected a much different result from today's women's final in Paris. New #1 Maria Sharapova, three times a Major winner before, took on Italian Cinderella Sara Errani, who'd never made it past the third round of a Slam prior to this year. The scoreline was one-sided: Sharapova ran off with the first four games, won more than eighty percent of her first serves in the opening set, hit more than three times as many winners as her opponent, and despite an unflagging challenge from Errani was ultimately crowned the French Open champion.

Perhaps more important than the title itself is what Sharapova accomplished with the win -- her career Grand Slam, it turned out, was a long time in the making.

A breakout star with her astonishing 2004 run to the Wimbledon title, Maria went on to pick up the U.S. Open crown in 2006 and another in Australia in '08. She rose to #1 in the world, holding the position for seventeen weeks in total, but saw her career stall when a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery kept her out of the game for nine months. Her return was well-documented, but it took a while for her to really get her stride back -- at her first Slam post-injury, she battled to the Roland Garros quarters, but needed four three-setters to do it. It took another two years before she got past a Major fourth round, and her struggles made those first couple titles seem a few light years in the past.

But things started to turn around last year. She fought her way back to the Wimbledon final, albeit without facing an opponent ranked higher than she was, and kicked off 2012 with another runner-up showing in Melbourne. After going undefeated on the red clay this season, she proved she was truly one to watch in Paris and, though she avoided potential event-ending showdowns with Serena Williams or Caroline Wozniacki, she was able to live up to those high expectations.

At seven years and eleven months, hers was the longest length of time needed by man or woman to complete the career Slam -- Chris Evert needed two months less -- but the victory is just as sweet. I'm not sure many thought she'd be the next one to complete the feat, but now she joins an elite group of seventeen that includes the likes of Serena, Steffi Graf, and of course Rod Laver. And the better news is that this might be just the start of many more records to come -- with the Olympics just a few weeks away, she might have that elusive Golden Slam in her sights too.

Tomorrow Novak Djokovic will try to one-up even that. Currently reigning champion at three Majors, he has the opportunity to complete the Nole cycle Sunday, holding the title at every Slam at the same time -- something last done by Laver in 1962. Of course he'll have to go through clay court king Rafael Nadal to do it, but if he can pull off the upset -- yes, it'd be an upset despite the Serb's #1 ranking -- that would be four completed career Slams in three years, the most prolific period in history.

Of course that won't make the achievement any less prestigious, but it sure makes the divide between the sport's elite and everybody else that much greater. And with the latest entrants (or possible entrants) into the illustrious group separating themselves from the pack, they've put up notice for anyone who steps on court with them.

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