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No Queen of Clay, but Sharapova still a threat in Paris

Jo Carter May 22, 2012
Maria Sharapova successfully defended her Internazionali BNL d'Italia title in Rome © PA Photos
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Maria Sharapova clearly likes her animal analogies. Having once famously described her movement on a clay court as "like a cow on ice", Maria Sharapova now believes clay-court tennis is like a game of "cat and mouse".

"I'm still learning about the clay court game which is a little bit like a 'cat and mouse' game, as the ball comes back more often and differently," she said recently.

Sharapova does not look comfortable on the clay in the way that someone like Justine Henin did, but with two big wins in Stuttgart and Rome - having successfully defended her title at the Foro Italico, she must be considered a serious contender at the French Open.

Especially when you consider that rivals Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki are all nursing injury niggles. World No. 1 Azarenka , Williams and Wozniacki pulled out of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia citing fitness concerns, while Kvitova played through the pain of a stomach injury.

It has been four years since Sharapova last won a grand slam title, but with her rivals seemingly falling like flies around her, 2012 could be the year that the Russian completes her career Grand Slam in the most efficient way possible - four wins - one at each major.

Her once-impressive record in grand slam finals has slipped - she was two wins from two and three from four, but after falling to Kvitova at Wimbledon and Azarenka at the Australian Open, her success rate has dropped to 50 per cent.

She was soundly beaten by Kvitova at the All England Club last summer, and her 6-3 6-0 defeat to Azarenka in Melbourne would have been a cause for concern. But she beat both players on clay en route to her debut victory in Stuttgart.

Her serve remains inconsistent - she hit 10 double faults in her win over Li Na on Sunday and it let her down against Kvitova at SW19, but there are plenty of positives to take from her performance in Rome.

Sharapova is chasing a career Grand Slam at Roland Garros © Getty Images
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One thing she does have going for her is that she never gives in. Trailing 6-4 4-0, many players would have checked out mentally, but Sharapova battled back (admittedly with a fair amount of help from Li who seemed to capitulate quite spectacularly) to claim a 4-6 6-4 7-6(5) victory.

She has saved match points en route to two tournament wins on clay this year, and while Sharapova is quick to point out she is not dominant on the surface, the 25-year-old is happy with the improvements in her game.

She said after her win on Sunday: "Dominate is a strong word and that means winning every single match, and I have improved, and most of it comes down to the physical aspect and patience -not changing my game but relying in the things I have improved, like sliding and playing and definitely on the serve. This is helping,"

Sharapova has never reached the final at Roland Garros, twice falling in the semi-finals, but the majority of her defeats in Paris came at the hands of strong clay-court players - twice to four-time champion Justine Henin, twice to two-time finalist Dinara Safina, one loss to 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic and last year she fell in the semi-finals to eventual winner Li Na.

She will never be a Queen of Clay, but the "cow on ice" could well be slip-sliding her way to a career Grand Slam in Paris this summer.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk