(Reuters) - Based on form alone, Maria Sharapova enters the French Open as favorite to complete her career grand slam, a surprising turn of events for the Miami-based Russian whose relationship with the red dust has not always been a happy one.
Her recent title in Rome, where she defeated 2011 French Open champion Li Na in the final, coupled with her resounding victory over world number one Victoria Azarenka to win Stuttgart a few weeks earlier means she is 12-1 for the claycourt swing and sliding into Paris full of joie de vivre.
Significantly, however, that one blot on her record was inflicted by American Serena Williams on Madrid’s blue clay.
Thirteen-times grand slam champion Williams, who like Sharapova has endured more than her fair share of injuries over the years, has enjoyed an encouraging year so far and recently went on a 17-match winning streak, including the Madrid title.
Alarm bells rang when she withdrew from her semi-final against Li Na in Rome because of a knee niggle, but it was thought to be more of a precautionary measure ahead of Paris rather than anything too serious.
Williams, who a year ago was still absent from the Tour after a career-threatening foot injury and health problems, is back up to number five in the world and targeting a second French Open crown, 10 years after her first.
Sharapova, whose efforts on clay have often resembled a Formula One car sliding about in the rain on the wrong tyres, is yet to win at Roland Garros, although sheer bloody-mindedness has seen her reach two semi-finals - the last of which came 12 months ago when she was also tipped to win.
Still only 25, she says patience rather than her trademark power is the key to her form on the dirt, on which she once described her movement as like “a cow on ice”.
“I have improved and most of it comes down to the physical aspect and patience,” she said after wearing down Li on a heavy, clinging court in rainy Rome.
“It’s not about changing my game but relying on the things I have improved like sliding and definitely on the serve.”
Williams, who counts Paris as her favorite city and wrote on Twitter that she should be re-named “Chantel” while at Roland Garros, will prefer the conditions hot and fast.
The 30-year-old has no rival, not even Sharapova, when it comes to aggressive, front-foot tennis - a fact born out by an 8-2 winning record over the Russian.
Never short on confidence at the slams, she 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.”
While it would be no surprise for them to contest a third grand slam final next month, provided they are placed in opposite sides of the draw, there are many hurdles to overcome the women’s tournament at Roland Garros, since the demise of Justine Henin, has been wildly unpredictable.
Of the new generation, Australian Open champion Azarenka has already proved herself worthy of the top ranking, both with her play and the mental fortitude that the likes of Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova have yet to demonstrate.
Belarusian Azarenka begun the year in stunning fashion, winning her first four tournaments, and her form on clay has been impressive with finals in Stuttgart and Madrid, losing to Sharapova and Williams respectively.
She withdrew from the last 16 in Rome with a shoulder ache - claiming that she only played in the tournament to avoid zero ranking points, a statement that irked Sharapova who would clearly take great pleasure in regaining the world number one ranking from Azarenka.
Of the other contenders, world number four Kvitova is the best bet, although she would have to strike the balance between her dazzling shot-making skills and a willingness to grind.
China’s Li Na, who became the first player from an Asian country to win a grand slam last year, has not won another tournament since and were she to defend her title it would be an even bigger shock than winning it in 2011.
Reporting by Martyn Herman. Editing by Patrick Johnston