PARIS: Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, two players better known for their hardcourt and grasscourt abilities, are the form players going into the climax of the claycourt season at the French Open.
Between them they won the four main lead-up events on the surface but the question is whether one of them can sustain their form through two weeks and seven matches in the unpredictable playing conditions that are a mark at the famed Roland Garros complex on the western edge of Paris.
Williams, whose only win here came 10 years ago, has staged another impressive return to form in recent weeks.
The 30-year-old defeated Lucie Safarova in the final at Charleston before pounding world number one Victoria Azarenka to take the Madrid Open title. She withdrew from the Italian Open semis but has expressed confidence she will be fully fit to challenge for the title in Paris.
“I’m feeling better on clay than I did at the US Open, I have a better ranking and my fitness is better,” said the 13-time Grand Slam champion said.
“I just feel better this time around. I feel I can play on any surface and that’s the right attitude for me. I’m enjoying my tennis. This is where I belong and what I do best.”
‘I have improved on clay’
Sharapova, at 25, is a late convert to claycourt tennis having once described her movement on the slippy red dirt surface as being ‘like a cow on ice’.
She reached the semi-finals last year before losing to eventual champion Li Na and it was the Chinese player she defeated last weekend to defend her Italian Open crown. She also chalked up a straight sets win over Azarenka in the final at Stuttgart, a win that followed losses to the Belarussian in the finals at the Australian Open and Indian Wells.
But her only encounter so far this year with Serena Williams resulted in a 6-1, 6-3 thumping in the quarter finals in Madrid.
“I have improved and most of it comes down to the physical aspect and patience and not changing my game but relying on the things I have improved like sliding and playing and definitely on the serve and this is helping,” she said.
Defending champion Li, who last year made history in Paris by becoming the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam singles title, showed in her run to the Rome final, where she stretched Sharapova to a third set tie-breaker, that she is running into form at just the right time and could challenge again.
Azarenka, however, seems to have stalled after a tremendous start to the year that saw her win four tournaments, including the Australian Open, and rise to number one.
The joker in the pack could be Dane Caroline Wozniacki who has tumbled from the world number one position she held last year and is currently at ninth, but is still capable of a return to top form.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 25th, 2012.