There was only one moment here yesterday when doubt crossed Maria Sharapova's face during her quest to win the French Open title for the first time – and it came moments after completing her 6-3, 6-2 victory over Sara Errani. "Would you please welcome the runner-up," the on-court announcer said at the presentation ceremony. "Maria Sharapova!"
For a nano-second the thought seemed to cross Sharapova's mind that her victory had been a cruel dream, but Errani, an ironic smile on her face, rose to receive her trophy. The world No 24, who was the lowest ranked player to reach the final here since the rankings were launched 37 years ago, never looked capable of stopping Sharapova's quest to become the tenth woman in history to have won all four Grand Slam titles.
The Russian had too much power and too much experience of the big-match occasion for an opponent who had never gone previously gone beyond the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam tournament and had won only one match in five previous visits to Roland Garros. Four and a half years after winning her last Grand Slam title, Sharapova has completed her comeback in style, her first Roland Garros title complemented by her return to the No 1 position in tomorrow's updated world rankings list.
The 25-year-old, who has topped the list of the world's highest-earning sportswomen since 2004, hardly needs tennis given her blossoming interests in fashion and business, but has worked tirelessly after spending nine months out of the game following shoulder surgery four years ago. Just as impressively, she has learned to master clay, a surface on which she once admitted made her feel like "a cow on ice".
Sharapova described this victory as "surreal, the most unique moment I've experienced in my career". She explained: "I never thought I would have that. When I won Wimbledon at 17, I thought that would be the most treasured moment of my career, but when I fell down on my knees today I realised that this was extremely special, and even more so.
"I proved that no matter how many punches I took in my career, I've always got back up. I never made excuses for me, not to myself, not to people. I always relied on my own talent, on the help of my team. At the end of the day, that's really what gets me through and gets me up. I have a tremendous amount of belief and pride in what I do. I love my work. I love playing tennis.
"I could have said: 'I don't need this. I have money. I have fame. I have victories. I have Grand Slams'. But when your love for something is bigger than all those things, you continue to keep getting up in the morning when it's freezing outside."
Now the Russian would love nothing more than to win her second Wimbledon title in four weekends' time. Asked if winning here might give her inspiration at the All England Club, Sharapova said: "What do you think? I'm going to retire? This is going to give me so much motivation."
Errani, who will jump 14 places to No 10 tomorrow, has proved herself a great battler over the last fortnight, but the 5ft 4in Italian was all too often overpowered by the 6ft 2in Russian, who belted 37 winners to Errani's 12.
When Sharapova raced into a 4-0 lead there were fears that this might be as one-sided as some other recent women's Grand Slam finals, but Errani demonstrated her fighting spirit, even if it took double faults by the Russian in one game to launch her comeback. Errani recovered to 4-2 and saved two set points when serving at 2-5, but Sharapova was not to be denied, converting her third set point in the following game by cracking a backhand winner down the line.
The second set followed a similar pattern. Sharapova again took the initiative, breaking serve in the opening game, before Errani demonstrated some resilience. Sharapova broke serve for the fifth and final time to serve for the match at 5-2, though once more her opponent refused to lie down.
A superb forehand winner by Sharapova when at full stretch set up the first match point, which she failed to convert by hitting a forehand long. An ace created a second, which Errani saved with an audacious drop shot. The crowd, who were warming to the contest, broke into a chant of "Sara! Sara!" Sharapova, however, moved to match point number three with another ace and this time Errani's attempted drop shot fell into the net.
Sharapova sank to her knees and held her head in her hands before looking around in apparent disbelief. The Russian's post-match celebrations often seem choreographed, but on this occasion she could not stop jumping up and down in a show of pure joy. Her journey back to the top has been long and difficult, but this made it all worthwhile.