It was heartbreak for Maria Sharapova when she was denied the chance to play at the French Open last year, but the five-time major winner is back with a point to prove.
The two-time champion in Paris, who had recently returned from a 15-month doping ban, had not built her ranking high enough to qualify but was widely expected to be handed a wild card.
That invitation never came. Instead, things got worse when injury ruled her out of the entire 2017 grass-court season before she made a stunning Grand Slam return at the US Open under the lights of Arthur Ashe Court in August.
“Behind this little black dress and the Swarovski crystals, there is a girl with a lot of grit and she’s not going anywhere,” said Sharapova after seeing off second seed Simona Halep in her New York opener.
The former world No 1 had seen her ranking slump to 173 as she started to rebuild a career, but now she’s back in the top 30, guaranteed a seeding at Roland Garros, and hitting balls with Rafael Nadal in Rome. “He probably thought I was really weird,” she said.
“I was like – ‘Let’s not get crazy’. It’s not like you’re asking him to go on a date. You’re just asking him to hit a couple of balls with you.
“I was like, listen, you gotta hit a couple balls with Rafa on clay, you know. It’s like a check on the bucket list, definitely.”
More importantly, Sharapova is happy again. The doping scandal behind her, she has proven that she can compete with the new elites in women’s tennis.
Only the very brave would write off the title chances of a player who was champion in 2012 and 2014, runner-up in 2013 and semi-finalist in 2011.
Clay has helped the Russian achieve her best levels where she has developed to accommodate her best weapons to the surface she has slowly grown to love.
“I was stubborn enough to know that maybe I wasn’t the best in having variety. I wasn’t the strongest. I wasn’t the fastest. But I found a way to come through,” she said in Rome.
“I watched a lot of commentating on TV, particularly when I was younger, where after each French Open champion won – Justine Henin or Svetlana Kuznetsova – the commentator would say, ‘this is how it’s done’. You know, you got to get the loopy ball then you gotta slice back and then you gotta play defence.
“I was like, ‘well, I don’t have that, then I’m going to do everything I can and find my own weapons and make them better and accommodate them for this surface’. And I think that I did. I got better in every little aspect on the court.
“Maybe it was physically challenging for me. I was tall, I was lanky, I wasn’t coordinated. I think all those three things apply to this day. But, you know, I just know how to handle it better.”
“I’ve had an incredible amount of memories there,” Sharapova said. “I think that first Roland Garros for me was one of the highlights of my career.
“Being in that environment, just even the practice and getting there on the first day, practising on centre court for the first time. I love it. There’s nothing that can replicate it.
“As long as I can continue to feel motivated by that moment, I’ll keep loving it and playing there.”
She may have already completed the career Grand Slam but winning the French Open for a third time could mark her greatest achievement in tennis yet.