PARIS — Sidelined in 2008 by a right shoulder that needed surgery, putting her tennis future in doubt, Maria Sharapova decided to use the free time to study a new language, the one spoken at the only Grand Slam tournament she had not won.
"I found a French school close to my house," she recalled, "and I did private lessons every single day for three months."
Sharapova cut short those classes when it was time to begin the slow, painful rehabilitation process and get her shoulder back in shape. About 3½ years later, on Saturday at Roland Garros, Sharapova put all that hard work to good use on the most important claycourt there is. And she even trotted out a little French during the victory speech she often wondered if she'd get a chance to deliver.
Whipping big serves with that rebuilt shoulder, putting forehands and backhands right on lines, and even moving well on the red surface she once worried made her look like a "cow on ice," Sharapova beat surprise finalist Sara Errani of Italy 6-3, 6-2 to win her first French Open title and become the 10th woman with a career Grand Slam.
"It's a wonderful moment in my career," Sharapova, 25, told the crowd in French before switching to English to add: "I'm really speechless. It's been such a journey for me to get to this stage."
So much came so easily for Sharapova at the start: Wimbledon champion at 17; No. 1 in the rankings at 18; U.S. Open champion at 19; Australian Open champion at 20. But a shoulder operation in October 2008 made everything tougher. She didn't play singles from August 2008 until the following May, when her ranking fell to 126th.
"It wasn't getting better as soon as everyone thought it would," she said about her shoulder. "That was the frustrating thing, because it was like, 'When is this going to end?' "
It took until her 10th postsurgery Grand Slam tournament for Sharapova to get back to a major final, at Wimbledon in July 2011; she lost. She reached the Australian Open final in January and lost again.
The French Open always seemed to present the most difficulties for Sharapova. Her powerful shots lose some sting on clay, and the footing can be tricky for anyone such as she who didn't grow up on the rust-colored stuff.
A global celebrity with millions upon millions of dollars in endorsement deals, Sharapova put herself through the grind required to get back to the top of her sport — and to get better on red clay. She is unbeaten in 16 matches on it this season, including two titles.
"I could have said, 'I don't need this. I have money. I have fame. I have victories. I have Grand Slams,' " Sharapova said. "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, when you know that it can be the most difficult day, when nothing is working, when you feel like the belief sometimes isn't there from the outside world and you seem so small.
"But you can achieve great things when you don't listen to all those things."
At the start of her postmatch news conference, Sharapova was presented with a glass trophy containing a cross-section of a claycourt. Marking her completion of a career Grand Slam, it was etched with Saturday's date, Sharapova's name, and the years of her four major titles.
"Oh, this is beautiful. I never thought I would get this," said Sharapova, who also will return to No. 1 for the first time since June 2008 in Monday's WTA rankings.
"I never thought I would want red clay, but I do. Now I do."