Philadelphia, PA – It took 16 days, and the French Open is finally over, but not after a pair of tennis' biggest superstars made some history in Paris.
Rafael Nadal needed one more French Open title to become the sole all-time leader on the men's side, while Maria Sharapova required a French Open championship to become the 10th woman in history to capture a career Grand Slam, joining the likes of such tennis luminaries as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams.
Both players achieved those lofty goals over the last two-plus weeks in the "City of Light," as the former world No. 1 Rafa cooled off current top-ranked stud Novak Djokovic in the two-day men's final on the famed red clay at Roland Garros, while Sharapova had a huge fortnight by reaching her first-ever French Open final, becoming the No. 1 player in the world again for the first time in four years, and easily handling Italian clay-courter Sara Errani, 6-3, 6-2, in the ladies' final to record her first French Open title and join Nadal as a career Grand Slam titlist.
The 26-year-old Nadal nailed down a third straight and seventh overall French title by dropping only one set in his seven wins (21-1). Djokovic took a stanza off the mighty Mallorcan in the rain-delayed final, which started on Sunday and ended on Monday, but Nadal was just too strong in a four-set victory on Court Chatrier.
Nadal appeared well on his way to the title on Sunday -- up two sets and a break -- but Djokovic managed to stun everyone who was watching by winning an unfathomable eight straight games against Nadal (on clay) before play was suspended.
When the two warriors returned to the court on Monday, the match swung back in Nadal's favor. The Spaniard then crossed the finish line, following a brief rain delay, without going five sets, 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, to become the most prolific player in the tournament's history in the Open Era (since 1968). France's Max Decugis won eight French titles from 1903-14, during the Amateur Era.
Note: Evert piled up seven French Open titles on the women's side from 1974-86.
Djokovic was trying to make some history of his own in France, but it wasn't meant to be. The super Serb holds the Australian Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon titles and with a win in Paris he would've become the first man in 43 years to possess all four major titles. Rod Laver captured a true Grand Slam back in 1969 (as well as in 1962).
Unfortunately for him, the Djoker's career Slam will have to wait.
"I'm just happy to be in this position, you know, to be playing finals at Roland Garros," Djokovic said.
Nadal, appearing in a fifth consecutive major final (2-3), had lost to Djokovic in the previous three Grand Slam finals, and the two men made some more history by becoming the first two men to meet in four straight major finals.
When the smoke cleared in Paris, the "King of Clay" Nadal was an 11-time Grand Slam champion and the undisputed king of the French Open. My tennis hero Bjorn Borg captured six French titles in an eight-year span from 1974-81, and, make no mistake, his competition was just as fierce (Ivan Lendl, Guillermo Vilas, Jimmy Connors, etc.)
"For me, the comparison to the great Borg is a great honor," Nadal told NBC's John McEnroe on Monday.
Nadal equaled Borg and Laver with his 11th major championship.
Note: The only other men in the Open Era besides Nadal and Borg to capture at least three French Open titles are Lendl, Mats Wilander and Gustavo Kuerten, who all tallied three apiece.
Nadal is now an incredible 52-1 lifetime at the French, with his only loss coming against big Swede Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. Nadal later admitted he was battling knee injuries and family problems at the time of that tough setback.
Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Sharapova headed to Paris as one of the co- favorites, along with Williams, and made good on her promise. The now four- time Grand Slam champ hadn't won a major title since the 2008 Aussie Open and had been trying to close out the career Grand Slam with a French victory since then.
After failing in France in her last four tries (nine overall), 2012 finally turned out to be the tall Russian's year.
Things got a lot easier for the clay-challenged Sharapova in Paris when Williams was shocked in the first round by once-decent Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano. Williams had been unbeaten on clay this year and looked like a pretty good bet to capture her first French Open title in 10 years. But no one told the 29-year-old Razzano, who would promptly crash out in her next match.
The top-seeded woman in Paris was Victoria Azarenka, but the Aussie Open champ disappointingly lost to diminutive Slovak Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets in the fourth round, which also helped Sharapova's cause in a big way. Azarenka had been No. 1 since beating Sharapova in Aussie Open final back in January, but Sharapova officially supplanted the Belarusian star atop the rankings this week.
In her semifinal in Paris, Sharapova, who has appeared in three of the last four major finals (1-2), avenged her Wimbledon championship match loss from a year ago by handling powerful Czech left-hander Petra Kvitova in straights.
No. 1 again, a first French Open title and a career Grand Slam? Wow, that sure is a lot of success for a woman who had her career derailed by shoulder surgery 3 1/2 years ago.
It's safe to say Sharapova is all the way back at this point.
"It's the most unique moment I've experienced in my career," she said after her big win on Saturday. "I never thought I would have that. I thought 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 realized that this was extremely special, and even more so."
The aforementioned Errani reached her first-ever Grand Slam final and gave Italy a surprise third straight representative in the French title tilt. Her fellow gritty compatriot Francesca Schiavone captured the title two years ago and lost to China's Li Na in last year's finale at RG.
Errani toppled 2010 French Open runner-up Sam Stosur in her semifinal affair in south Paris.
Li was unable to defend her French title after losing to Kazakhstan's Yaroslava Shvedova (who?) in three sets in the round of 16.
Back over on the men's side, the great Roger Federer continues to add on to his record of Grand Slam semis, but the Swiss legend has now failed to capture a major event nine straight times and is probably resigned to the fact that he's just not as good as Djokovic or Nadal today. The 16-time Grand Slam champ was pushed out in straights by Djokovic in the semis last week.
Last year, Federer upset Djokovic in the semis, which halted a brilliant 45-match winning streak by the Belgrade native.
Can the once-mighty Federer capture another major with Djokovic and Nadal still in their primes? It's starting to look unlikely.
Federer, of course, will head to Wimbledon in a couple weeks as one of the favorites, but Djokovic and Nadal will certainly be at the top of that list, which is really only three players deep if you ask me.
Just outside the "Big 3" among the men is capable British star Andy Murray, who came up short last week when he succumbed to gritty Spaniard David Ferrer in the French quarters. Murray is a three-time Grand Slam runner-up who is still trying to give the Brits their first male major champion since Fred Perry ... in 1936!!
Wimbledon will commence in two weeks at the venerable All England Club, which also will play host to some Olympic tennis this summer.