It was almost four years ago to the day that Maria Sharapova last had the world at her feet. Justine Henin had retired from the game and asked for her name to be removed from the WTA rankings. The Belgian's decision handed the top spot to Maria (then world number two), a position that she would occupy for just three weeks that time. Her reign would end on 9 June 2008.
This week Maria officially reclaimed the world No.1 ranking. It's been 209 weeks since she was the best player in the world - the third longest gap in WTA history - and it's been a long road back for the Russian. Throughout that four-year gap she has overcome a career-threatening injury, been lured by fame and fortune, and had to change significant elements of her game - most notably her serve - to protect her from further injury. But despite all of those obstacles she has climbed the ladder back to the top and done it in style.
"I proved that no matter how many punches I took, I've always gotten back up," Sharapova said following her win in Paris. "I never made excuses, not to myself, not to other people. I always relied on my own talent and on the help of my team. And at the end of the day that's really what gets me through.
"I had so many outs in my career. 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 can achieve great things."
Maria is a fighter, you just have to watch her on court to witness that. Overcoming a shoulder injury that put her out of action for nine months and saw her drop outside the world’s top 100 (129) is further testament to it. But while others might have called it a day in those darkest hours (and let's be honest she didn't need to keep on playing by that stage of her career) Maria persisted.
2010 was another less-than-ideal year by her lofty standards (although a year-end ranking of 18 showed signs of recovery), but in 2011 she saw some great big glimmers of hope. A Wimbledon final defeat by Petra Kvitova showed that she could once again mix it with the best, and wins in Rome and Cincinnati helped propel her into the top 5 in the world.
Then came 2012. As her ranking dictates, Maria has consistently been the best player of the year so far. Of course, Azarenka enjoyed a blistering start to 2012 - including a defeat of Sharapova in the final of the Australian Open - but the form of the Belarusian has dipped of late. Maria, however, has featured in six finals, including those of the four biggest tournaments of the year so far (Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami and the French Open). She might not have won as many as she would like (she's taken three: Stuttgart, Rome and the French), but she has wracked up an impressive points tally from these tournaments.
Indeed, perhaps more impressive than appearing in so many finals is the fact that all of her wins have come on clay. As every tennis commentator has been desperate to point out over the last few weeks, Maria once likened herself to a "cow on ice" when it came to playing on clay. Not any more. In 2012, only Sara Errani has a record to match the Russian’s on clay.
"I've improved physically. I've moved a lot better. From my first tournament in Germany, I just felt more comfortable. Not just this year, but starting maybe last year, maybe the year before. I started believing I could play longer rallies and could recover better."
This drive to better herself on the tennis court will surely lead to Maria adding to her tally of weeks at the top of the game. Because one of the most surprising statistics about the Russian is that she has 'only' held the world number one ranking for 17 weeks in total during her career. For a player who commands so much attention and respect, it seems a poor return for her precocious talent.
And one that she seems determined to address: "I'm not sitting here and saying I'm done, because I'm far from it. I have a lot more in me to achieve. I believe in my game.
"I think that's one of the reasons why I'm sitting here, is because I always believed I could be better, a better player, whether it was on clay, grass, cement, anything - I always strive to be better. And one per cent here, a few there, that's what I've always wanted to achieve."
The percentage increases in performance are impossible to measure. The facts aren’t. By securing her career Grand Slam Maria Sharapova is back at the top of the women’s game. There are plenty of people who are happy to see her there. That she has had to do so the hard way – and against some real adversity – is merely a testament to her commitment and dedication to the sport that has made her arguably the most famous sportswoman in the world.