PARIS -- It's not often that we're treated to instant-classic tennis matches, but without doubt, Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep played one of the great women's Grand Slam finals in recent memory. And that's not just because this was the first three-set final at Roland Garros since Jennifer Capriati defeated Kim Clijsters in 2001.
Playing in her third straight final at Roland Garros, Sharapova outlasted Halep, in her first Grand Slam final, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4. Sharapova's blistering forehand kept the Romanian on the run, but Halep's mix of smooth defensive and unexpected offense was impressive.
It was nice to see that the 22-year-old wasn't paralyzed by nerves brought on by playing on tennis' biggest stage with Sharapova on the other side of the net. Halep slugged away, brought her superior power to bear, dictated rallies from the baseline and -- as she's done all tournament -- simply saved her best tennis for when it's mattered most.
On triple match point at 5-4 in the third set, Sharapova nailed a deep angled forehand, and Halep barely managed to get a racket on it. Sharapova followed the lob until it landed wide, and then fell to her knees, with her second French Open title sealed. This is her 50th match win at the French Open, more wins than she's notched at any of the other three Grand Slams. (Who would have predicted this when Sharapova won Wimbledon, her first major, a decade ago?)
There's something misleading and artificial about the obligatory transformation of the tennis player. Yes, Andre Agassi went from the rat-tailed punk and the Taco Bell gastronomy, to bald and wise Tennis Buddha. Earlier in his career, Novak Djokovic was known mostly for his mimicry and questionable fortitude; today he is a businesslike and dignified champion, revered for his fighting instincts. The Serena Williams of today is not the Serena Williams of, say, 1999. But of course she's not. Who among us doesn't evolve and change over the course of 10, even 15 years?
Still, the emergence of Maria Sharapova as -- dare we say it? -- a clay-court specialist is among the most striking mid-career conversions in tennis memory. A hard, flat ballstriker with the locomotion of, well, a locomotive, Sharapova was singularly ill-suited for clay. No spin. No kick serve. No nuance. No fleetness afoot. But she worked on it. She embraced the challenge. She won.
Today's performance reinforced the abiding Sharapova irony: Her tennis game isn't what you would call easy on the eyes. She once endorsed Canon cameras with the slogan "Make every shot a power shot," and it applies to her tennis. Sharapova simply blasts away, firing round after round, punctuating each shot with a keening RHHEEEee-AAAhhhhh screech, that -- suffice to say -- she is not asked to replicate for her corporate clients. "Maria, full of grace," she is not.
What's more, hers is not a life of glamour; rather, she is tennis' answer to a gym rat. She spends her days not at international discos and cafes, but on the back practice courts from Stuttgart to Shanghai drilling and tinkering with her serve. Hardly a natural athlete, she simply laps up competition.
But Sharapova's still stumped by one person -- Serena Williams. Sharapova's struggles against the world No. 1 are, of course, well-chronicled. When Serena was defenestrated from the draw in the second round -- a day after Li Na, the second seed, tumbled out -- Sharapova's draw opened like a rose and she became the odds on favorite to the title. She played like it, waxing some opponents and simply outfighting others.
This tournament also doubles as a coterie for a new slate of WTA stars. For years, the tennis establishment has quietly wondered where the game will go after Serena, Li and Sharapova -- median age north of 30 -- decide to retire. This event we found out.
Garbine Muguruza backed up her upset of Serena by reaching the quarterfinals -- where she lost to now-champion Sharapova -- with her audacious ballstriking. Eugenie Bouchard, 20, now entrenched in the top 10, has reached the semis of both 2014 Grand Slams; on clay, her worst surface, she came within a few games of beating Sharapova and reaching the finals. Then Halep showed that even though she's only 5-foot-6, she's a fleet and fluid player who deserves her No. 3 ranking. But Sharapova beat them all in succession, with guts and glory. She's 27 years old, and long as she's still a glutton for competition, she'll stick around, thanks.
And today, tennis' most unlikely clay-court champion is entitled to shriek.