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Grand Scheme Of Things

Sharapova's chance for a Slam faces a major obstacle: She has feet of clay at French Open.

January 30, 2008|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia -- With Maria Sharapova having dominated the field at the Australian Open, the focus will soon turn to Paris, where a victory in the French Open would give her a career Grand Slam by age 21, and keep alive her chances for the much rarer calendar-year Slam.

History suggests it will not be easy. Sharapova has never even reached the final of an event on clay, a surface that neutralizes her best qualities, serve and power.

And if she did get that far on the red clay at Roland Garros, she might find herself facing Justine Henin, who has lost only one match at the French Open in the last five years, and approaches it like her own personal Super Bowl, framing her year around the event.

Though Sharapova has handed Henin one-sided losses at two majors, in the 2006 U.S. Open final and the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, Henin seems like a different player once she arrives at Roland Garros.

Sharapova once compared her own movement on clay with that of a "cow on ice."

But the upside for Sharapova is that she can only improve on the surface, and is free of the shoulder problems that plagued her last year -- in particular, in her semifinal loss to Ana Ivanovic at the French.

Her movement has greatly improved, and during her march to the Australian Open title she displayed more tactical variety than in the past, using more slice and even pulling out a drop shot on occasion, and succeeding with it.

The best, it seems, is yet to come.

"I know I've already won three Grand Slams," Sharapova said. "I know I keep saying this, but I don't think I'm at the peak of my career yet. I don't think my body has 100% developed into its own. I've got many more things to learn, you know, in my tennis, and many things to build and improve.

"That takes time. It's not an overnight process."

The potential obstacles in the way of a calendar Grand Slam are always numerous, and the fact that it's an Olympic year makes it even more difficult, considering there is a gap of only a few days between the end of tennis competition in Beijing and the start of the U.S. Open in New York.

A trail of 2008 championships running through Melbourne, Paris, Wimbledon, Beijing and New York would allow her to match Steffi Graf's unprecedented "Golden Slam" of 1988, when the German won all four Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal.

But that's getting far ahead. Sharapova was asked if she had the choice, would she pick an Olympic gold medal or another Wimbledon title?

"That's so tough," she said. "I think because I already have a Wimbledon title I'd take the Olympic gold medal, yeah. But if it was any other tournament, I would say Wimbledon."

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lisa.dillman@latimes.com

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Three to go

To complete a Grand Slam this year, Maria Sharapova must win the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles, following her triumph Saturday in the Australian Open. Here is a look at her best results at those events in the past:

FRENCH OPEN

May 25-June 8, Paris

Surface: Red clay.

Best previous finish: Lost in 2007 semifinals to Ana Ivanovic.

WIMBLEDON

June 23-July 6, London

Surface: Grass.

Best previous finish: Won championship in 2004, defeating Serena Williams.

U.S. OPEN

Aug. 27-Sept. 9, New York

Surface: Hard court.

Best previous finish: Won championship in 2006, defeating Justine Henin.

Source: www.sonyericssontour.com

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