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French Open 2013: Can Sharapova break her Serena duck?
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Reads: 812, Comments: 0
A ‘cow on ice’, she called herself. When Maria Sharapova stepped on the clay courts in Europe last year, it seemed as if the Russian was on a mission. A mission to set the record straight - A mission to assert the dominance that she has had on other surfaces - A mission to prove that she had conquered her demons on the red dirt.
And rest as they say is history. The Russian looked determined and focused not just at Roland Garros, but all through the clay court season. Sharapova won a stunning three titles on her ‘least favorite surface’ last year, including two star studded events in Stuttgart and then another one in Rome before finally capturing her first Grand Slam title in Paris. Prior to that phenomenal year, last year, the 25 year-old had won just two titles on the surface, with one of them being a low key event in Strasburg. Her problems on the dirt can be further exemplified if one has one look at her performances at Roland Garros. Maria had made just the two semifinal appearances at the event in nine years. A shambolic return from a player who had won each of the rest of the three Grand Slam titles before.
Gradual Development and Fine Form
A lot has changed for the Russian from 2004, when she reached the quarterfinal of the event back as a 17 year-old. And it has been a gradual change involving several parameters, including a perpetual shoulder injury that threatened her career at one point. Her movement on the surface has improved radically, as we witnessed last year and none of the top 5 in women’s tennis feel quite at home on the dirt as she does.
With April upon us already, the European clay court season is at our doorstep. Maria started the year spectacularly by playing some dazzling tennis en route to the semifinal of the Aussie Open. The World No.2 had only lost a total of nine games, but suffered a momentous dip in form right when it mattered the most to hand Na Li a place in the final. The former World No.1 has since appeared a lot more determined and played a superb hard court season, both in the Middle East and then later in America. At the two Premier Mandatory events in Indian Wells and Miami, the Russian ended up as champion and runner-up respectively.
The career Grand Slam winner’s performance in this year so far, is quite similar to her 2012 season. Except this time, Sharapova has already won a Premier Mandatory title and what’s more she also came agonizingly close to registering her first win over Serena Williams since 2004 at the Sony Open in Miami. In Maria’s ten year long professional career, Serena has been a constant thorn in her armor. The 25 year-old invariably tends to come out second best against the American, and has a dismal 12-2 head to head record against her. Sharapova however finally appears to be gaining some ground.
At Miami, when Sharapova took the first set in the final, that was the first set that the Russian had won against the World No.1 in 5 years. Moreover, Serena has herself looked a bit jittery this year and she will most definitely be tested on clay - a surface where she has often struggled. The American might not admit it, but it is one surface on which even she seems mortal. Clay is one surface where the effect of the serve is mellowed down (ask Pete Sampras), and Serena’s serve is most definitely the best shot in the women’s game. The American last made the semifinal at the French Open back in 2003, something that highlights her poor run on the red dirt.
Serena’s Loss is Maria’s Gain
Just as Victoria Azarenka finally got a win over Serena earlier in the year, if there is a surface where Maria can break the shackles, and get that psychologically significant win over Serena, it is clay.
The Russian’s record on the surface is 87-20 which is impressive on its own at 81.3 percent, but what’s more remarkable is that Sharapova actually sits above the American, who has a win-loss record of 103-30 (77 percent) on the surface.
Despite her apparent weakness on the surface, Serena will once again come into this year’s clay court season as a favorite and the sad reality especially with Maria is the fact that it is Serena, who will always stand in her way and becoming the player that she truly deserves to be.
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