As recently as a year ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone, pundit or fan, who truly believed that Maria Sharapova had a legitimate chance to win the French Open. Not only is it the one grand slam title to elude her but it happens to be played on clay, which is the surface on which she once described her own movement as being “like a cow on ice”.
Fast forward 12 months and the Russian has now won two high-profile clay tournaments and reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros last summer. Her victory over Victoria Azarenka at the weekend not only ensured there actually is a rivalry between the two at the top (Azarenka had won the previous three) but also elevates Sharapova right up among the favourites for the title in Paris.
Watching her being out-hit and out-manoeuvred by Azarenka in the Australian Open final and then again in Indian Wells, it was tough to see how Sharapova could get the better of the new world No 1. But she looked the better player in Stuttgart and when you think that she also beat Sam Stosur and Petra Kvitova, it has to be one of her best and certainly most satisfying wins.
It will be fascinating to see what happens over the next few weeks. Sharapova burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old winner at Wimbledon, with her thunderous ground strokes, but could it really be that her best chance of adding to her three grand slam titles could be at Roland Garros?
Well, perhaps it’s not that fanciful. For a start, Sharapova has improved her movement immensely in the past 18 months and clay not only allows her a little more time on the ball, she can get to more balls herself. She has as much, if not more, power than Azarenka and Kvitova, both of whom are good on clay but not necessarily at their most comfortable. And her serve, which appears to be improving all the time, is a real threat on clay, especially her kick serve, which often throws up a short reply from all but the very best. She still has to guard against a bad day, but the trend is upwards.
Conditions in Paris can vary an awful lot but if it is warm it can actually be pretty quick. If that’s the case, then the new Babolat balls which were used for the first time last year and which are that little bit harder and faster, will also help her cause. The likes of Stosur are sure to be tough – their quarter-final in Stuttgart was a real battle – but if she can stay fit and the wind stays away, then maybe, just maybe, she could complete a career grand slam.
With her model looks and her results on the court, Sharapova is a sponsor’s dream. The Russian’s latest affiliation is Samsung, for whom she recently signed a three-year deal. According to Bloomberg News, Samsung posted record revenue last year, helped by the popularity of its Galaxy smartphones. But news that Prince has filed for bankruptcy in the United States might have a few executives wondering about the Sharapova effect. First she endorsed Motorola, only for the troubled company to split in 2011; then she partnered with Sony Ericsson, which became Sony after Ericsson was bought out. Having played with Prince rackets since the age of nine, she switched to Head last year and now Prince is in trouble.
Coincidence? Does Maria (or her agent) have a crystal ball? Or could she be the business black widow?
Finally, Sharapova and co will have a new broadcaster on the scene this summer as British free-to-air channel ITV ventures into tennis. It plans to show 150 hours of coverage from the French Open in what is the first year of a three-year deal. At its launch on Tuesday, anchor John Inverdale introduced a team of commentators which will include former world No 1 Jim Courier and ex-British players Sam Smith and Mark Petchey, among others. Having picked up the coverage from BBC – the finals will be shown live on ITV1 while most of the matches will be on ITV4, which is fast emerging as a regular sports channel. Bon chance.