"You never know when it will all come together, but it happened to me this week in Tianjin", Maria Sharapova smilingly said. The Russian's appearance in a final was a milestone being that she hadn't done it since the 2015 Italian Open.
She went through a 15-month drug bank, did her time, took a lot of criticism, played some tournaments and now stands looking at her Tianjin trophy. On the other side of the net was a 19-year-old Belarusian whose singles ranking is 76.
She turned pro only last year and has two singles ITF titles. Aryna Sabalenka didn't drop a set the entire Tianjin Open tournament and neither did Sharapova. This was scary. The Russian is used to scary from the day she stepped foot on the Stuttgart court of the Porsche tournament in April right after her doping ban ended.
She made it through the quarter-finals there to be disposed of by one of her harshest critics, France's Kristina Mladenovic. The Madrid Open came, another event she was awarded a wildcard and Sharapova breezed through until her outspoken opponent, Canada's Eugenie Bouchard blew Sharapova off the court leaving her to admit that "It's going to be tough, but every match I play now is important for me".
The Russian's two more tournaments she received wild cards but lead to unsuccessful results at either getting to the final or obtaining a title. The Italian Open was a disaster for Sharapova who had to retire in the second round with a thigh injury leading the match 4-6, 6-3, 2-1 with Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.
The press and others started to speculate that maybe the medicines she might have been on were wearing off and the true Sharapova was being revealed, leaving her not only mentally but physically vulnerable. There was also the withdrawal from the Stanford Open in California with a sore left arm that ended her run there.
But grateful to receive a wild card to the US Open, she went to the quarterfinals meeting with Anastasija Sevastova who manipulated Sharapova around the court winning in 3 sets, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2. "It's been a great ride...just competing...that's what I missed", Sharapova admitted.
But things started to change with the Asian swing as she entered the China Open in Beijing making it to the third round but stopped by Simona Halep in straight sets. The Russian's momentum of play was rising as she entered the Tianjin Open.
She had a confidence surge, showing more comfort on the court and disposing over every opponent from Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu, Magda Linette, Stefanie Voegele of Switzerland and then Peng Shuai. The last round, the final was the most nerve-racking as she faced Aryna Sabalenka, ten years Sharapova's junior in age and who wanted a WTA title badly.
This tournament was the tell-all for the Russian and the tarnished reputation she had of failing a drug test might soon be changed if she could capitalize and win this match. The first set was fierce with the Belarusian being aggressive and cross courting the Russian, hitting the corners and drop shotting taking a commanding 4-1 lead.
It was enough to give Sharapova a wake-up call making her now exchange shots digging herself out of a 3-game hole to win the first set. the games did get to 5-all as she forged ahead to finally win set one 7-5. The last and deciding set was also filled with anxiety and drama as the same pattern prevailed Sharapova allowing Sabalenka to get to a 5-1 lead, not being assertive, letting her younger opponent dictate all the shots.
But Sharapova's walk up call came again almost way too late as her opponent maintained a 5-3 lead even having a net cord drop shot keep the Russian at a distance. But it was the experience that took over when Sharapova tied the games at 5-all.
The smell and feel of success were imminent for this comeback champion but not without much nervous, nail-biting times when Sabalenka sent the set to a tie-breaker. The points on many occasions were even tied and then Sharapova's serve and Sabalenka's return landed long giving Sharapova the set, match and title, her first in two years.
It was a monumental win for Sharapova. The frustrations and criticisms she went through during her period of the drug ban may well be over as a result of winning a title. Sharapova is just glad to have proved to herself that she can come back and physically win not only a match but a tournament again.
It's still within time if she'll win back the tennis community and comrades that considered her a player that tainted the sport of tennis that most have a love and passion for.