Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sharapova wins in Rome, establishes self as favorite at French Open

Maria Sharapova won the biggest clay court event of her career on Sunday, defeating Sam Stosur 6-2, 6-4 in the final of the Italian Open. In doing so, Sharapova established herself as a surprise favorite in a wide open French Open, which begins one week from Sunday at Roland Garros.

The 23-year-old Russian is seeking to win the career Grand Slam in Paris.

Two weeks ago, Sharapova hardly would have been a likely candidate to enter the season's second Slam as one of the main contenders. In her first clay court appearance of the season in Madrid, she struggled to win her first two matches against lesser opponents, one of whom was ranked No. 109 in the world, and then was ousted by Dominka Cibulkova in the third round. She cruised through the early rounds on the slower courts in Rome, caught a break when Victoria Azarenka retired in their quarterfinal match and easily handled top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki in the semis.

Clay has traditionally been the least successful surface for the big-serving and hard-hitting Sharapova. This time around, the slow clay may been beneficial. Sharapova's serve has been a mess since she returned from shoulder surgery in 2009. In the Miami final earlier this year, Sharapova held once in nine games. The serve was still erratic in Rome -- Sharapova double faulted four times in the 83-minute match and was barely above 50 percent on first-serve percentage -- yet never fell apart. Perhaps it was the comfort of knowing that a match won on the red clay of Rome would have to be won on the baseline rather than on serve. With the importance of the serve diminished, there was less pressure to hit it well.

What it all means for the French is anyone's guess. Though Sharapova, Wozniacki, Azarenka, Stosur, Kim Clijsters and Vera Zvonareva will be on everybody's short list, any result for each of those players, from a first-round loss to hoisting the trophy on the first Saturday in June, is a possibility. There's no favorite, only players more likely to win than lose. If we accept that there are three players who can win on the men's side, let's say there's 15 who could feasibly get hot and win seven straight on the women's.

Maria Sharapova showed she's one of them this week in Rome.

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