FOR eight years Maria Sharapova's most treasured tennis memory had been her first Grand Slam title, captured as a 17-year-old on the Centre Court at Wimbledon in 2004.
That changed when she beat Sara Errani in the French Open final in Paris.
"I never thought that something would be sweeter than the first one," Sharapova said. "But the second I fell to my knees, I just felt something extremely special."
The win elevated her alongside nine other women who have won all four Grand Slams.
But more than that, it completed a long and often painful journey following the shoulder surgery the 25-year-old underwent four years ago.
Sharapova, chosen yesterday to carry the Russian flag at the London Olympics, said that journey had begun after she had struggled to beat Marta Domachowska, a journeywoman Pole, in a tournament in Montreal in the summer of 2008.
"I was having a few problems with the shoulder about four months before the surgery," Sharapova recalled. "Everyone was just telling me: 'You have inflammation, tendonitis.'
"But nothing was really going away, despite so much treatment and anti-inflammatories."
An initial MRI scan had failed to pick up the problem but a second revealed two tears in her right shoulder.
Sharapova was soon undergoing surgery and did not play another singles match for nearly 10 months.
After a failed comeback playing doubles in Indian Wells, a bruised bone was diagnosed.
"Bone bruises take a long time to heal and it was a pretty big one," she said. "It was stop and go, stop and go. Everyone had great expectations and they would say: 'OK, in a week or two, you'll be able serve and have no pain.'
"I would go and serve and be clenching my teeth."
Already the world's highest-earning sportswoman, Sharapova had no need to return to competition.
But the competitive drive installed by her father Yuri who took her to Florida when she was nine for two years to have the best coaching, refused to go away.
"I love competing," she said. "There's nothing in the world that gives you that adrenalin feel, just being in the moment of a match.
"There's nothing that I've done in my life that has given me that experience."
- Name: Maria Sharapova
- Age: 25
- Grand Slam Titles: Wimbledon 2004, US Open 2006, Australian Open 2008, French Open 2012.
- Hobby: Shoe designer.