by Rob Morgan
Maria Sharapova may have won two of the biggest titles in the game over the past couple of months but the French Open champion still feels there’s room for improvement in her game heading into Madrid this week.
“I had a really good week, obviously successful, but I had to pull through a few really tough matches out there which I think really helped me and put me in good form in the final, which is obviously the most important match of the tournament,” Sharapova said, reflecting on her successful run in Stuttgart last month, beating Li Na to defend her title.
“But overall, yeah, I'm quite happy with how I progressed there, and looking towards the next couple weeks are still really important weeks of preparation, as well as big tournaments for us. So, yeah, it's nice to be back here. Hopefully I go a step further than I have in Madrid.”
Sharapova is aware that her record in Madrid isn’t a particularly impressive one. She’s won every other big clay court title on the circuit, dominating in Rome over the past couple of years but she hasn’t fared well in the Spanish capital which is a little surprising given that the courts are relatively fast and bouncy which should suit her game. However as she noted, she played well when the end of year WTA Championships were held in Madrid, on an indoor court.
“I haven't had really good success at this tournament, but in general I love playing in Madrid,” she said. “I like playing in the altitude. You know, I was quite successful in the Championships here for a couple years when they had it. But, yeah, my goal is obviously to do better. I think the quarter-finals is the furthest I've got in this tournament. Certainly my goal is to go further this time.”
Like many players she never got to grips with the blue clay last year and crashed out in the quarters, soundly outplayed by eventual champion Serena Williams. This time round, Sharapova and Williams are seeded to meet in the final which would be a fascinating clash with the world number one ranking up for grabs this week. However Sharapova says she’s keen not to put too much pressure on herself. “I don't want to think about it too much, because it also depends on the results of other players,” she said. “Of course, I will do my best to get as far as I can and control what's in my hands. As far as how other players do, it's not in my control. I try not to worry about it too much.”
But she’s definitely delighted that the blue clay has gone. After many leading players threatened to boycott the tournament this year unless the surface was switched to red clay, the organisers have been especially meticulous with the court this year and their efforts have been praised by several leading players already this week, including Sharapova.
“I've been practicing here for a few days already,” she said. “Well, I think we all know that last year was a very hopeful experiment and it didn't turn out so well I think, not for the tournament or for the players as well. I think everyone kind of learned their lesson and we're back to normal now. Yeah, it feels pretty good. I think it's quite heavy right now. I think also the conditions have been quite cold and muddy, so it's feeling a little bit thick. I think over time it's going to become a little bit faster.”
Sharapova’s first big test this week could come in the third round where she could play either Dominika Cibulkova or Sabine Lisicki. Either opponent would represent a tricky test – Cibulkova made the French Open semis a few years ago and has been playing well again this year while Lisicki is on the comeback trail after injuries and beat Sharapova at Wimbledon last summer.
If Sharapova makes it to the quarters, then she’ll probably play Petra Kvitova in a rematch of last year’s French Open semi-final. Kvitova hasn’t been at her best over the past month but she’s been grinding out the wins and if her serve starts to click into gear, she’ll be a force to be reckoned with, especially at altitude.
When I have trained Roger Federer