When Maria Sharapova was recovering from shoulder surgery four years ago there were times when the Russian wondered whether she would ever play again.
She hardly needed to compete to put bread on the table – she has been the world's highest-earning sportswoman since 2004 – but as she contemplated her future she set herself a target: to reclaim the No 1 ranking she had lost in the second week of June 2008.
World No 126 when she returned to competition in 2009 after nine months of rehabilitation, Sharapova will finally return to the No 1 position on Monday, when she could have plenty more reasons to celebrate. Today the 25-year-old Russian plays her first French Open final, against Italy's Sara Errani, knowing her first Grand Slam title for four and a half years would put her alongside only nine other women who have been crowned champions at all four Grand Slam events.
"It will be special, my first Roland Garros final," Sharapova said yesterday. "Not many firsts in my career, as I have been a part of many tournaments and fortunate enough to win many. So to be in this situation is going to be quite new, but it's something I've dreamed of for a long time.
"I made a goal for myself to try to get back to No 1 when I came back from the injury and I wasn't really sure if that would happen. So to be in a position where I'll wake up on Monday morning knowing that I reached that goal makes me extremely happy."
Upon her return following surgery, Sharapova had to remodel her service action, which is much more economical than it used to be.
Meanwhile, her continued dedication to her sport has been evident in the way she has learned how to master clay. The self-confessed "cow on ice" has become a comfortable mover on the surface, sliding into her shots and changing direction with an ease that was unimaginable in her early days.
"It's a long road back, a long process," Sharapova said. "There are definitely a lot of tough things you have to go through to get to this point, but when you get here and you look back at the things that you did and the work that you put in and the toughest days that you can remember, it's worth it.
"I've played tennis since I was four years old. I committed myself to this sport. I've always loved what I did. When it was taken away from me for a while, that's when I realised how grateful I was and how lucky I was to be playing it." Sharapova will be the overwhelming favourite to beat an opponent who had only ever won one match here in five previous appearances and is the lowest-ranked player (No 24 in the world) to reach the final since the world rankings were launched 37 years ago.
Errani has enjoyed a fairytale run over the last fortnight, but it is hard to see her unduly troubling Sharapova, a hardened competitor with the temperament for the big occasion. This will be their first meeting.
Nevertheless, the 24-year-old from Bologna is a gutsy fighter, as she showed in yesterday's doubles final alongside her fellow countrywoman, Roberta Vinci. The Italian pair, the first from their country ever to win a Grand Slam doubles title, came from behind to beat Russia's Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
Italian lob: Lowdown on Errani
Born 29 April, 1987, Bologna, Italy.
Turned pro 2002 Highest ranking 23
Career titles Five WTA singles titles, two ITF singles titles, alongside 13 WTA and 6 ITF doubles titles.
Grand Slam best
Australian Open: quarter-finalist, 2012 (singles); final, 2012 (doubles).
French Open: Final, 2012 (singles); winner, 2012 (doubles).
Wimbledon: Third round, 2010 (singles); third round, 2010 (doubles)
US Open: Third round, 2009 (sing-les); quarter-finals, 2011 (doubles)
* Represented Italy at 2008 Olympics. Member of Italian Fed Cup squad in 2009 and 2010. In April she became the first woman since Serena Williams to pull off the singles/doubles sweep at two tournaments in the same year - and she could make it three today, having won the doubles at Roland Garros last night. Liz CrowhurstReuse content