by Rob Morgan
Not so long ago, Maria Sharapova would have been looking ahead to the clay-court season with something approaching dread. She struggled with the movement, lacked the patience to construct the rallies and found that it was too easy for the grinders to absorb her pace and slowly outmanoeuvre her. Not anymore.
Sharapova’s attitude to clay over the past few years has been refreshingly positive. Too many players have almost talked themselves out of succeeding on the surface – Andy Roddick for one while there are some (Britain’s Tim Henman as a striking example – who would have thought a serve-volleyer could make the semi-finals at Roland Garros) who have ultimately found a way to adapt their game to the dirt through sheer persistence.
2010 was the year when her fortunes started to turn around. She won a small title in Strasbourg and then in Paris she pushed Justine Henin all the way in a pulsating third round encounter. Henin, for so long the ‘Queen of Clay’ was made to look distinctly second best as Sharapova pummelled her in damp conditions and may have even won if rain hadn’t postponed play to another day. Maybe that was the point at which Sharapova believed she could really do some damage on the surface.
As John Isner has found, clay can actually work to the advantage of the taller players as the high bounce gives them more time to get into position to hit their shots. Sharapova has worked a lot on her point construction, her volleying and her ability to recover after being pulled into the corners. It’s made a big difference and she no longer has to go for broke on the run.
She made a major breakthrough by winning Rome back in 2011 and narrowly missed out at Roland Garros that year, losing to Li Na in the semis before everything fell into place last year. Sharapova did enjoy the benefit of a very kind draw as she rolled through to claim her first French Open title while the rest of the leading contenders fell by the wayside.
It will be interesting to see what happens when Sharapova comes up against her twin nemesises – Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams this spring. While she really believes she can beat Azarenka, especially on clay, the Belarussian’s weakest surface, one wonders whether she lacks that self-confidence against Serena.
She must be wondering what she has to do to beat the American after playing a brilliant match for the first set and a half in the Miami final before being blown away. Doubts crept into Sharapova’s mind and she stopped going for her shots with such fearlessness, giving Serena her chance. She may find she has more of an opportunity on the red clay as Serena has not won the French Open since 2002 and regularly seems to slip up when poised to do well.
It was good to hear Sharapova talking with such conviction about this year’s clay-court swing after the Miami final. “When you experience such a nice moment in your career (winning the French Open), to be able to come back there and to play on that court again where you lifted the trophy, won the match point, it's always special and meaningful, especially for the amount of years that you've worked so hard to get to that point, and I'll treat it as any other, you know, title that maybe I haven't won and really want to win because I would love to win it again,” she told the press.
Sharapova will begin her clay-court season in Stuttgart, the event which paved the way for her success last year. It’s a favourite tournament of the leading players as the clay closely resembles that of Roland Garros and Sharapova’s enjoys the slightly pacier feel of the court compared to Rome and Madrid, giving her serve even more venom.
Last year she took out Sam Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Azarenka in a row to win the title and a similar performance would give her plenty of belief that she can lift the title in Paris for a second time.