ROME -- Maria Sharapova has lost just three matches on clay in the last three years -- all to No. 1 Serena Williams -- and comes into the Italian Open riding an 11-0 streak after winning back-to-back titles in Stuttgart and Madrid.
But "The Queen of Clay"? The 2012 French Open champion isn't ready for that crown just yet.
"I haven't thought about myself as the Queen of Clay, but I certainly feel that I've improved a lot on this surface," Sharapova said. "I really trained myself to become better because I always struggled on it when I was younger. I realized I had no choice but to try to get stronger, prepare better, recover better and work on those things because they don't just come automatically."
Sharapova snapped a 12-month title drought in Stuttgart, her first trophy under new coach Sven Groeneveld. Her victory in Madrid boosted her career record on clay to 124-22, the highest winning percentage among active WTA players. Since 2010, eight of her last 10 titles have come on clay -- an odd twist for a player who made a name for herself on grass and hard courts and won 20 of her first 21 titles on the fast surfaces.
"It just wasn't that much fun because I was tall and I never felt very comfortable on it," Sharapova said of the red dirt. "But I always felt like I learned a lot. I always saw it as a learning experience."
Has she learned to enjoy playing on it, though? Not exactly.
"I enjoy winning on it more than I enjoy playing on it," Sharapova said.
After a right shoulder injury ended her 2013 season in August, it took Sharapova time to find her form, confidence and match fitness through the early part of this season. For the first time in a decade, Sharapova failed to make a final in the early hard-court season. Her frustration boiled over after Indian Wells, where, as the defending champion, she lost to No. 79 Camila Giorgi 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 in the third round. It was her earliest exit from the tournament since 2010.
"I thought I had a good preparation for it and I just didn't show up the way I wanted to," she said. "I was disappointed and I wasn't happy with that result. I had a few days in between that and Miami to really commit and to work and to keep going for it."
After a short training block, Sharapova came to Miami and battled her way through the early rounds until something finally clicked. She lost to Williams in the semifinals, but finally felt like herself again, with her on-court energy and attitude improved.
"After Miami, I was drinking a mojito in Mexico, and I was quite happy with myself at that point," she said. "I knew that it was going to be a long season ahead, but I was ready for it. I'm not scared of the work. I was ready to commit."
The key for Sharapova now is to manage her fitness going into the French Open. The shoulder is healthy, but after winning six matches in eight days last week in Madrid, her body is feeling it. She plays her first match against either Monica Puig or Daniela Hantuchova on Wednesday.Fashion Files: Looking at the best and worst of Sharapova's on-court outfits