Maria Sharapova now a dirt devil

Before she won the French Open last year, Maria Sharapova's most famous title on clay was "cow on ice."

That's how she once described her movement on the surface, and the description stuck more tightly than red clay stains on white tennis socks. But considering that both she and fellow Russian Anastasia Myskina have used the phrase and gone on to win Roland Garros, maybe something was lost in translation.

After all, has anyone ever seen cows on ice? Maybe they make great clay-court players.

Sliding around on a tennis court still isn't Sharapova's favorite activity, but she can now display this classic clay-court skill from time to time. She has also made progress in other features of playing on dirt: winning long points and long matches and coming back to do it all again.

Sharapova said that comes from improvements in her footwork, defense and endurance.

"I started moving a lot better. I started believing that I could play longer rallies. I could recover better," said Sharapova, shortly after demonstrating it by winning the French Open title.

"I've really improved physically."

That has come from practice and getting stronger over the years, but her steely competitiveness has never wavered. That allowed her to reach a semifinal and two quarterfinals even before she came to be considered a force on clay and saw her contest many battles with players who should have been too much for her on the surface.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

To repeat in Paris, Maria Sharapova likely will have to figure out a way to defeat Serena Williams for the first time in nine years.

One of those battles was against Justine Henin in 2010, when Sharapova hung in with the four-time French Open champ over three sets. That's when Sharapova started to feel she had what it takes to win the one Grand Slam title that was missing from her résumé.

"During that match, I felt like I retrieved many balls back. I made her play. I felt like I was really in the game," Sharapova said. "And I didn't feel like she was that much better than me at that time during that match -- despite all her success on clay, and I didn't have much.

"So, yeah, maybe that was a moment where I felt like, you know, I would have a chance one day."

As encouraging as it was for Sharapova, Henin had just returned from retirement earlier that year and was struggling to get back to her old form, particularly on her serve. Just a few weeks later, she would suffer an elbow injury that would send her into a second retirement. With her went the top-flight combination of power, speed and spin that poses an especially formidable challenge on clay. No top player currently plays with a one-handed backhand, let alone plays like Henin. Add in Kim Clijsters' post-retirement discomfort on the surface, Serena Williams' physical struggles, Amelie Mauresmo's departure, the decline of the more clay-adapted Russians and younger players being slow to emerge -- all that has meant clay-court season is open season.

Veteran dirtballer Francesca Schiavone won the French Open out of nowhere in 2010, defeating fellow late bloomer Sam Stosur, whose kick serve and topspin forehand were unexpectedly making her a regular presence at the tournament. In 2011, another veteran Li Na took the title despite having shown little taste for clay before that season.

Sharapova has also found this landscape to be a happy hunting ground, especially once she began to recover her form following her return in May 2009 from shoulder surgery. That took a couple of years, and many double faults, but eventually she made her first big post-surgery statement -- on her least favorite surface, no less -- by winning Rome in 2011. It was her first significant title on clay.

She subsequently lost to Li in the semifinals of the French Open, despite beating her at the same stage in Rome a couple of weeks earlier. Still, Sharapova's unexpected clay success was a springboard, and she went on to reach the finals at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. But once there, she was made to look stiff and slow by two younger players, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka, raising questions about whether the Russian would ever return to the Grand Slam winner's circle.

There's nothing in the world that gives you that adrenaline, just being in the moment of a match.
Maria Sharapova

Clay, once again, would be the answer. A few months after the Australian Open final, Sharapova got the better of Azarenka on indoor clay in Stuttgart, Germany, and sarcastically dismissed the Belarusian's show of injury during the match. In the French Open semifinals, she overcame Wimbledon conqueror Kvitova and went on to cap her comeback by defeating Sara Errani in the final.

After clinching the title, Sharapova spread out her arms and sank to the ground. It was the moment she had been working toward since surgery in the fall of 2008, through all the months of long and painful rehab, the hours of daily shoulder exercises, the training, the tournaments. She changed her service motion. She changed her coach. But she never changed her mind.

The work involved and the sometimes humiliating performances that followed might have been expected to drive a proud champion away. But Sharapova did not waver in her determination to get back to where she had been.

"It took a lot of time. It took a lot of bad losses," she said. "I was grumpy, and I had my tough days, and I would yell at people. ... I would certainly have my doubts, but I kept going, and I didn't let anybody tell me otherwise."

It's not like she didn't have anything else going on. The entrepreneurial now-26-year-old was working on launching her candy line and already doing a self-designed line of shoes and accessories for Cole Haan. Her engagement to NBA player Sasha Vujacic was also ending around this time (she is now dating tennis player Grigor Dimitrov), though it would not be known publicly until later in the year.

After a successful presurgery career that featured three Grand Slam wins, including a teenage victory at Wimbledon that helped make her the top earner in women's sports, walking away would have been an easy course.

But, she said, "There's nothing in the world that gives you that adrenaline, just being in the moment of a match."

And on the day of her victory in the French final, there was nothing quite like that match, that moment. Sharapova could hardly stop hoisting the trophy and even managed some French when addressing the crowd.

"Actually when I first hurt my shoulder and I knew that I wouldn't probably be playing for about two or three months, for some reason the first thing I did was I found a French school close to my house, and I did private lessons every single day for three months," she revealed later.

It may not have been specifically with this occasion in mind, but like everything else, it paid off. Her game had recovered, the field had opened up, and the one Grand Slam she had been given little chance of winning was now hers. A return to the No. 1 ranking served as a marker for the accomplishment.

Sharapova has not stopped there and began this season by playing at perhaps her best since the Australian Open in 2008. But now someone else is also at her best: Serena Williams. That presents yet another level of challenge, because Sharapova has not beaten Williams in nine years and lost to her five times in the past year, only once taking a set.

Though Williams shockingly lost in the first round of the French Open last year, she is clearly intent on not repeating the mistake. The 31-year-old American has lost just a couple of matches since, winning two Grand Slams and taking over No. 1. Like Sharapova, Williams seems to be closing the gap between her results on clay and other surfaces later in her career. She comes in having won the two biggest leadup events, in Madrid and Rome, defeating Sharapova in the Madrid final with relative ease, and will be the favorite if the two meet again in just over two weeks' time.

But whether Sharapova defends her title or not, after last year, she will always have Paris.

"It's the most unique moment I've experienced in my career," she said. "I never thought I would have that. I thought that when I won Wimbledon at 17, I thought that would be the most treasured moment of my career."

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