PARIS – Maria Sharapova's confidence is high as she returns to Paris to defend her French Open title. The Russian, ranked No. 2, has made the French Open finals the last three years, winning twice. Her transformation into a clay-court stalwart has been one of the more remarkable WTA stories over the last four years and Sharapova admits she's as surprised as anyone.
"I won my first Grand Slam at a very young age and tennis life," Sharapova told reporters in her pre-tournament press conference. "I really enjoyed playing on very fast courts with quick points. I wasn't yet physically developed. I was still growing at that stage. I wasn't as strong as I am today.
"With the evolution of the courts and technologies and the game itself, things have evolved, definitely. I guess to be in this position I think for many, including myself, the transition I made on the clay courts to become a two-time French Open champion has been a big surprise and really incredible achievement personally for me. Because I was able to take something that was a big weakness of mine and make it into one of my strengths."
This year the clay season started slowly for Sharapova. A leg injury delayed her preparation after Miami and she was forced to skip Russia's Fed Cup tie in her hometown of Sochi. She then took her first loss ever in Stuttgart, bowing out in three tough sets to eventual champion Angelique Kerber. Slowly she built up her match fitness, making the semifinals in Madrid and then capping it off with another title in Rome.
"I have had to work a lot through the last few tournaments," Sharapova said. "I had to spend much more time on court, in the gym, more than I would at other events. But that's what it takes to get back. There is no secret to getting the hours out there, getting the feel. It always takes a little bit of time to get used to the movement and the recovery and kind of the transition from the hard to the clay."
"Madrid was the first time in many months that I played five matches in a row. I definitely felt that. So to come into Rome and have that quick turnaround and to be able to play those matches and feel I was the freshest one in the final, I think in those weeks I can be the most proud of. Because three weeks before that in Stuttgart I wasn't up to that level yet."
Sharapova opens her tournament against No. 49 Kaia Kanepi in the first round.