By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Russian Maria Sharapova could run into old nemesis Serena Williams in the fourth round of the French Open but, the American aside, she will fear no one on her first appearance at the claycourt slam for three years.
The former world number one, twice a champion at Roland Garros despite an unnatural claycourt game, is seeded 28 after a rocky road back from a doping ban.
She was ineligible two years ago and last year French Open organisers declined to offer her a wildcard following her return to the Tour. Sharapova served a 15-month sanction for testing positive for heart drug meldonium after losing to Williams in the Australian Open quarter-finals in 2016.
The two grand slams she has played since resuming her career have resulted in fourth-round losses but having reunited with former coach Thomas Hogstedt last month, the five-times major winner is moving back in the right direction, according to Roland Garros great Chris Evert.
“She has a shot (at the title),” seven-times French Open champion Evert, an analyst for broadcaster ESPN, told Reuters.
“I see her moving better and the intensity is back. I see some drop shots. She is back with her old coach Thomas Hogstedt and she has won grand slams with him before.
“I see her getting better and better because she wants it and she is willing to work hard for it and it’s still the most important thing in her life. In the last six weeks I see an improvement in her game.”
The fact that no player has taken the game by storm while 23-times grand slam champion Williams took time off to have a baby, will further encourage Sharapova, according to Evert.
“Maria will look at it and see no one dominant. Serena Williams is the only player in the past who has been like a thorn in her side, but she feels mentally superior to most of the other and she feels she can win against them all.”
Only Williams, unseeded and ranked 453 has a superior grand slam record to Sharapova in the women’s draw.
Last year’s champion Jelena Ostapenko, double Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki and 2016 French Open winner Garbine Muguruza are all amongst the list of favourites.
But Sharapova, a semi-finalist in Rome last week, would not have a sleepless night about facing any of them.
“This is a title she has won twice and this is a surface that gives her a little more time to set up,” Evert said.
“She knows she can win it and she knows she is mentally tougher than most of them. When you look at the players who are contenders, they have a few slams but mentally they have had some big wins but also some big losses.
“Aside from Serena she has the most experience and is mentally tougher. That’s worth two games a set.”
Sharapova trails Williams 19-2 on career head-to-head but leads top French Open top seed Simona Halep 7-2, second seed Wozniacki 6-4 and third seed Muguruza 3-0.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)