How Maria Sharapova Cemented Her Place As A Clay-Court Specialist

ROME -- On an unseasonably blazing Sunday in Rome this past weekend, Maria Sharapova was frustrated. The Russian was locked in a clay-court showdown, down a set in the Italian Open final and fighting desperately against a Spanish all-courter named Carla Suarez Navarro, who was just points away from springing an upset on the five-time major champion.

But Sharapova, in front of a spirited crowd inside Campo Centrale, wouldn't back down. She slid into one backhand, her shriek echoing across the court as her racket struck the ball for a screeching winner. A few minutes later, she broke serve to take the second set and then ran away with the match, marking her third title in Rome a week from the start of this year's French Open.

Welcome to the world of "Claypova": Maria Sharapova, clay-court guru. For a leggy teenager who grew up in an Americanized system of baseline ball-bashing, the 28-year-old Russian has found the most success in her career over the past five years on the dirty stuff of Europe, winning 62 of 68 matches and capturing 11 titles, including two of the past three at Roland Garros.

In 2015 -- much like the past few seasons -- Sharapova hopes the surface will serve as another source of success. When the French Open starts Sunday, the defending champion will chase a third Grand Slam title there and her sixth overall.

Sharapova, clay-court specialist? It's perhaps the most astonishing narrative of an already Hollywood-esque career script.

"Five or six years ago I was afraid to open the front door of the clay season," Sharapova said in Rome last week. "It's definitely much more welcoming now. It's a great feeling."

The three months leading up to clay, however, had not been great for Sharapova, a beacon of power and determination on the WTA and arguably the most famous female athlete on the planet. After winning her season opener in Brisbane and finishing runner-up to Serena Williams at the Australian Open, Sharapova didn't reach a final in five events and, during one stretch, lost three straight matches at three different tournaments, marking the first time she'd done so since 2003, some 600 matches prior.

Amid the downward spiral, Sharapova fell to the then-97th-ranked, 5-foot-5 Daria Gavrilova, a fellow Russian, in straight sets in Miami. A lingering hip injury was rumored to be a bother, and playing that match "wasn't the smartest decision," Sharapova said earlier this month in Madrid.

It was in Madrid, on the clay, that Sharapova won four matches in a row for the first time since January in Australia. Then, in Rome, she went 5-for-5. She's a favorite, alongside longtime rival (well, more nemesis) Serena Williams for the title in Paris.

"From where I started at the beginning of [the clay season] to where I am today, I'm in a much better spot," Sharapova said after winning Rome.

It's a better spot for Sharapova overall on the clay, a surface that she once bemoaned and on which she likened her movement to a "cow on ice." A breakout champion at Wimbledon in 2004 at 17 and US Open champion by 19 (in 2006), Sharapova's go-for-broke, hit-as-flat-as-possible game suited the sport's fast courts best.

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Maria Sharapova still brings firepower to clay, but she also has added a pinch of touch and finesse.

But she hasn't won a major away from the slow stuff since 2008 (the Australian Open), a reflection partly of Serena's continued dominance (in tennis and in their rivalry, where Williams leads 17-2), but also of Sharapova's need to readjust her approach after shoulder surgery took her out in 2009. A delivery with less bite meant more need to play out points and wait for her opening.

"I've definitely progressed and improved [on clay], that's no secret," Sharapova said. "It was not an overnight success."

"A surface that was so tough for her in the beginning, she's really become so much more comfortable," analyst Mary Joe Fernandez said. "She's added shots to her game. She's using the drop shot more effectively now. For someone who hasn't been known for feel, she actually is having some good touch."

Where April, May and early June used to be a 10-week stretch of tennis that Sharapova dragged her heels through, a win in Paris again this year would mean she has the most clay titles of any active player on tour. (She and Serena Williams are currently tied at 11.)

"With her attitude and her belief and her history, there's no doubt that no matter what, she's going to be a force to be reckoned with in Paris," said Tracy Austin, a current analyst and former US Open champion. "She's had more success on clay than any other surface in the last few years because she's made changes, putting more topspin on the forehand, sliding into the ball better and hitting well out of the corners."

Players like Suarez Navarro and Caroline Wozniacki -- whom Sharapova beat in Madrid last week -- agree: Hard-court Maria and clay-court Maria are now strikingly similar. And that's dangerous for opponents.

"It's the same, I suppose," Wozniacki said in Rome. "She tries to play every ball flat and tries to hit it hard. There's really no difference between clay and hard courts [against her]. You just need to try and mix up the pace against her."

"Maria plays really aggressive [on clay] just like on hard court," said Suarez Navarro, who moved up to world No. 8 after Rome. "She has good punch. She stays in the match all the time. The most important thing about Maria: She is strong in the mind."

It's something Sharapova showed in Rome, and hopes to show in Paris, as well. Another Roland Garros title? Perhaps she should start considering changing her name to Claypova.

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