Once upon a time, the dawn of the clay-court season would elicit something of a groan from Maria Sharapova. Never the most natural of movers, the young Sharapova would find herself lost against nimbler, more agile rivals like Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, her flat hitting ultimately coming across a little one-dimensional compared to the array of spins and touch shots at their disposal.
Back in 2007 when Sharapova famously described herself as like ‘a cow on ice’ after another dispiriting encounter at the French Open, few could have foreseen that come 2014 she would be one of the most dominant clay-courters on the planet.
Her transformation is testament to a ferocious work ethic and the determination of former coach Thomas Hogstedt who played a huge role in banishing the doubts and convincing Sharapova that she was indeed capable of winning the French Open. Over the past couple of seasons, she’s actually looked at her most dominant on the clay, sweeping aside the challenge of rivals like Li Na and Victoria Azarenka.
“I don't know about it being my best surface,” Sharapova said, looking ahead to the next couple of months. “I always find it as a challenge. Although I’ve improved tremendously, I always want to keep improving on it, because I still feel like I can be a better mover and get from defence to offence more swiftly, because offence is where I play my best. But I love the upcoming season and what's ahead, and it will be great for me to get back to Europe and to play that long swing of tournaments.”
Sharapova would almost certainly have two Roland Garros crowns to her name right now if it wasn’t for Serena Williams who has been the only player capable of thwarting her ambitions on the dirt over the past couple of years. Williams notched up another couple of one-sided victories against Sharapova last year, outplaying her in the Madrid and Paris finals.
Once again, the American looks set to be the big obstacle for her this spring and going by their most recent clash in Miami (which Williams won 6-4, 6-3), Sharapova is no closer to solving the conundrum which has seen her lose their last 16 matches.
“Despite my results against her, I still look forward to playing against her because you learn so much from that type of level which she produces,” she insisted.
“You finish the match, and you know where you need to improve and the things that you need to work on, because against someone like her who’s so powerful, explosive and in there every point, that teaches you to make sure that you're in there every point and you're doing your thing consistently, not just for a short period of time.”
Sharapova has always insisted that she does not have a psychological block against Williams and after their latest clash she told the press:
“There’s no reason for me to have any pressure because of my results against her. She's an incredible champion. That's the reason she's at the top. She's accomplished a lot. I mean, her tennis speaks for itself, and I have nothing to lose out there against her.”
However, the way she has often performed against Williams suggests that isn’t really the case. The only match in recent memory where she’s come out swinging freely against the American was actually the Miami final last year where she was up a set and a break before she tightened up and lost in three.
Does Sharapova know deep down what she needs to do to beat Williams? While the American always appears to have a fairly clear-cut game plan which she knows will hurt her opponent, Sharapova too often looks increasingly lost as the match progresses.
But after a distinctly average start to the year, which saw her suffer losses to Dominika Cibulkova in Melbourne, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Paris and Camila Giorgi in Indian Wells, Sharapova feels that she’s finally starting to come into form ahead of the clay-court swing.
“I didn't have a great week in Indian Wells. I think I played poorly, to say the least,” she said. “I didn't start off well in Miami, but as the tournament progressed, I started regaining my form and I won a few three-set matches, which I haven't done a lot this year. That was very important for myself and my shoulder to see that I was able to find that strength and to serve well deep in the third set. So those are the things I look at, because it's a long year and there’s many tournaments ahead.”
Sharapova will begin her clay-court season in Stuttgart, a tournament she’s won for the past two years. However after slipping to her lowest ranking in several years (No.9) she has plenty to prove with players like Australian Open finalist Cibulkova in the field.
However with Li Na and Azarenka opting not to compete this year, there’s no one who Sharapova will seriously fear in the draw with Agnieszka Radwanska and Simona Halep leading the entry list.