Sharapova shapes up as French threat

"A cow on ice?"

Maria Sharapova smiled when she was reminded she had described herself as such on clay. Given her looks, the phrase was wildly inappropriate, but it did reveal the extent to which the tall, blonde Russian is capable of poking fun at the image in the mirror.

And the fact that it is no longer technically true, as far as her finding her footing on this demanding clay surface, throws significant light on what could unfold during the next two weeks at the French Open. Sharapova arrived in Paris with clay-court titles in Stuttgart and Rome under her belt, and the way she defended her crown by fending off a strong challenge from the French title holder, Li Na, in the final at the Foro Italico, offered a major confidence boost.

“I’m much more comfortable on the surface now,” she insisted while replying to the cow on ice reference. “I feel physically stronger. I think that has definitely helped me in the recovery process because I am no longer afraid of having to play long matches, as so many are on clay.”

For someone who was once accused of being distracted by the flash of the photographers’ bulbs, Sharapova has shown herself to be a doggedly focused professional athlete who never needs an extra incentive to go out and win her next match. But there is an extra incentive here — the French title would complete her collection of all four Grand Slams. Of the current generation, only Serena Williams, whom Sharapova might face in the quarterfinals, has achieved this rare feat. Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis all came close by winning three, while Venus Williams’ seven Slams do not include either the Australian Open or Roland Garros.

For Sharapova, the clay-court breakthrough came in Rome last year, and her game, on every surface, has continued to improve since then.

“I’ve always felt that no matter how old you are or how many years you have been on the tour, you can always improve as a player and as a person,” she said. “You can learn with every match. You can learn so much. I always think I can improve. I never sit here and make excuses when I lose. I just go out and practice harder.”

It is this attitude that makes Sharapova so impressive and why she must be considered a major contender this year. There is no question that the biggest threat to her achieving that goal is Serena. The younger Williams sister defeated Sharapova 6-1, 6-3 in the quarterfinals of Madrid on that especially slippery blue clay and never really looked capable of coming to terms with Serena’s firepower. Should they meet in the quarters, Sharapova will have to come up with a different game plan, something she and her Swedish coach, Thomas Hogstedt, will be working on.

As for Serena, she has insisted she’s no longer hindered by the injury problems that forced her to pull out of Rome a few days after wrapping up the Madrid title with a convincing victory over world No 1 Viktoria Azarenka — although one never knows.

“I feel a lot better,” she said. With Serena, that could mean anything, but there is no doubt  she is up for the fight and is obviously happy to have Venus competing on the tour again.

“Everything Venus is doing is so inspiring for me,” she said, referring to the fact that her sister is still paying while battling illness. “It helps me so much to have her out here.”

Questioned about her priorities, which seem to have wavered in the past, Serena brushed aside her private life.

“I just have bad luck in love,” she said. “If it doesn’t work, leave it alone, right? I think in general I have a much better commitment to tennis. You know, I am really 100 percent.”

Providing she is fit and maintains that attitude, there is every chance Serena can reclaim the title she won for the only time in 2002.

Li Na, who ensured that tennis would gain a few million more followers in China by winning so unexpectedly here 12 months ago, has run into form at the right time after months of distraction because of the pressure of her newly found fame.

Apparently it was not unusual for women to scream in amazement when she walked into a restaurant on returning home.

“It’s OK, I can eat, right?” she said despairingly. “Sometimes very difficult to lead (a) normal life.”

But this charming and amusing young talent has won just 12 of her past 16 matches and appeared to be getting back to her best before losing to Sharapova in the Rome final. Somewhat surprisingly, Li Na dispensed with the services of Michael Mortensen, the Danish coach who helped her win in Paris, after her form fell away during the summer in America.

Now, her husband, often the butt of her jokes in news conference, is back in a dual role. “My husband is coaching me again and I think it works well,” she said.

Her first big test might come if she has to play Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals.

Azarenka, who will be trying to win back-to-back Slams after her triumph in Australia, has been somewhat overshadowed in recent weeks and took a severe beating from Serena in the final of Madrid. With her steely attitude and athleticism, another Slam is not beyond her. But form suggests that Sharapova or Serena stand a better chance of ending up victorious.

The No. 3 seed, Agnieszka Radwanska, cannot be totally discounted, although the Pole has a daunting draw. Before she can think of meeting dangerous local favorite Marion Bartoli in the quarters, she must get past Venus and two former champions, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Ana Ivanovic.

A tough ask. But then, for tennis players, Paris in the spring is never a picnic in the grass. It’s more like a battle through the red dirt, and the winner, whoever she is, will have deserved it.