PARIS (Reuters) - Maria Sharapova has hit form at the perfect moment as she eyes a defense of her French Open crown but old nemesis Serena Williams is lurking in the Parisian shadows.
Russian Sharapova, who once despised claycourt tennis but transformed herself into the 2012 and 2014 champion, arrives in the French capital fresh from winning the Italian Open in Rome.
The 28-year-old, beaten by Williams for a 16th consecutive time in the Australian Open final in January, defeated Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro in the Rome final, a week after reaching the semis in Madrid and will be full of confidence.
“I‘m in an especially good spot physically. I‘m prepared to go the distance now, and to beat someone like Carla who loves long matches, to come through that gave me a lot of confidence,” Sharapova, winner of 20 of her last 21 matches at Roland Garros, said last week.
Yet most observers make twice French Open champions Williams the favorite -- even if she has suffered niggling injuries of late and can be at her most beatable on the red dirt.
Romania’s Simona Halep, last year’s runner-up, will be in the mix too but few would be surprised if Williams and Sharapova served up a repeat of the 2013 final.
“I think this would be a better surface for her to play Serena,” Chris Evert, a commentator for ESPN during the French Open fortnight, said in the build-up to the tournament.
”I think that it (the clay) defuses Serena’s power. I think (Sharapova) likes that few extra seconds that clay allows her to set up her shots.
“She feels confident, she feels happy on the clay.”
Williams, 33, will be aiming for a 20th grand slam singles title to move four shy of Margaret Court’s record, but was forced to withdraw in Rome with an elbow injury, having also suffered knee problems earlier in the year.
Her physical condition will be severely tested over the coming fortnight, but Martina Navratilova believes if she is fit, Williams remains in a class of her own.
“Serena is amazing, and she will get to 20 slams for sure,” the 18-times grand slam singles winner told the Tennis Podcast.
“It definitely gets harder when you are in your 30s but at the same time, the new generation hasn’t quite caught up to Serena so she has a nice window there.”
Incredibly, despite being a relative veteran, there is talk of a Williams grand slam, but Evert, thinks that is unlikely.
“I think Serena, when she has bad days, she’s very beatable,” the American said. “When she has bad days, she loses her timing, consistency, everything just goes.”
The list of those waiting to take advantage if the world number one stumbles is not a long one, however.
Halep has the patience on clay, while Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova has the power but not necessarily the craft to survive two weeks at Roland Garros.
Former world number one Victoria Azarenka, coming back to her best after injury, could be a dark horse.
Reporting by Martyn Herman in London; editing by Toby Davis