Sharapova ready to shine


TENNIS: FRENCH OPENIF THERE are clouds hanging over Paris this weekend, not one is shrouding Maria Sharapova. As she reaches for her fourth slam, the Russian is sunnier than for a while, installed at the top of the world rankings from Monday and a firm favourite to end the French fairytale of the Italian clay-courter Sara Errani this afternoon.

She beamed after beating Petra Kvitova in the semi-finals. But for all her perceived serenity, Sharapova has served her time in Hell Alley. Her Wimbledon win in 2004 led eventually to 17 intermittent weeks at number one, then her wrecked shoulder in October 2008 sent her crashing to as low as 129. It has been a gruelling climb back, and part of the suffering for her has been the doubts of others.

“It will be special,” she said, “my first Roland Garros final.” But in case anyone thought she got caught up in the mood of exultation on regaining the number-one ranking with her win over Kvitova, she reminded us: “My celebration was room service and a massage. How exciting, huh?”

She has always been like this, ice cool in the heat of the big moment – even when winning Wimbledon at 17, the first of her three slams, and in the other 41 finals she has reached, where she has been a winner 26 times. As special as the first one was, she recalls it as if it were a minor exam. “I look back at that all the time,” she said. “I’ve always said nothing really bothered me, the situation, the atmosphere, my first final, my opponent. I went out there with a really clear head . . . I went out to try to do my job.”

For her admirers, her tennis is a performance. For Sharapova, it is a job, and to do it well, she has fallen into a routine of tics so clinical and precise they almost drain the theatre from the experience, turning an event into an exercise. On receiving serve, she withdraws, retreats, pauses, picks at her racket strings and, rightly or wrongly, dictates the rhythm of the match. It drives opponents mad, and she would not have it any other way. “I have always had my own little routine during matches, since I was very young. I’ve stuck to it, win or lose . . . It gives me a moment to zone in and think about what I want to do.”

Going on how Errani disrupted Sam Stosur in her semi-final win, there will be a few such moments for Sharapova today. It would be a major surprise, however, if the Italian gets inside her head. Right now, it’s screwed on pretty well.

Guardian Service