Maria Sharapova may not be the queen of clay just yet but she is certainly far from the cow on ice she once famously described herself as, and she goes into the French Open more confident that ever.
The Russian, whose best performances at Roland Garros have been semi-final appearances in 2007 and 2011, has won two titles on clay already this year, in Stuttgart and last week in Rome.
And even more significant have been the players she has beaten, including world number one Victoria Azarenka, Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and last year’s French Open winner Li Na.
Sharapova said: “I’m much more comfortable on this surface. Even though I don’t play too many tournaments on it throughout the year, I feel like with every year that has come and the clay court season arrives, I feel physically stronger.
“I’m enjoying it a bit more. Before I felt like in matches I was saving myself a little bit because I didn’t always believe that physically I could play seven matches in difficult, heavy conditions in Europe when it’s raining.
“My body just wouldn’t recover that well. But I’ve certainly improved that. I’m moving a lot better, which has helped me. It’s always nice coming to the French Open with a couple of titles on clay and having a few more days to prepare.”
Sharapova’s impressive season, which also includes a final appearance at the Australian Open, has lifted her to within touching distance of the world number one spot she last held four years ago before shoulder problems struck.
She will begin the tournament, which starts on Sunday, 630 points behind Azarenka, and it is a goal that would bring huge satisfaction to the 25-year-old.
Sharapova said: “I would love to have that again because after I came back from my injury, I thought to myself, ’Well, when I was young I had the goal of being number one. I’m kind of in a position right now where I don’t have a ranking. I’m just starting from scratch. If I did it once, maybe I can try to do it again.’
“So to be in a position where I’m close, I’m really happy. I’m happy with the way that I fought through the tough moments in the days when things weren’t going exactly the way I had imagined them to go.
“And it’s obviously always nice to be in that position to try to get that (number one). It’s a position that every player wants.”
The second seed will meet Romania’s Alexandra Cadantu in the first round and faces a potential quarter-final clash with Williams, who is looking for her second French Open title a decade after her first.
The women’s draw again looks pretty open, with the prospect of a sixth different champion in as many grand slams dating back to Kim Clijsters’ Australian Open win last January.
Probably the most surprising of those winners came here last year, when Li became the first Chinese player to win a grand slam singles title.
The 30-year-old is happy to be back in Paris, and she said: “Last year before the tournament started I never had the feeling I could win the tournament.
“It’s always nice to come back to a tournament you have won. You feel that everything is fantastic and you have to remember what you did last year.”
Li’s achievement catapulted her to superstardom in China, and it took its toll on her tennis in the second half of last season, but this year she has found some much-needed consistency.
“I really want to stay the same but it’s tough for me because after I won last year my life changed,” she said. “So I had to change things. I couldn’t do the same as before.
“After I won here I didn’t do well in the other half of the year. But now I’ve got more experience. This year I’ve kept the same level, not like last year, always up, down, up, down.”
She added: “Last year I was back in China, I was in a restaurant, and suddenly a lady screamed, ’Oh, she’s eating’. I have to go to the supermarket to buy things like everyone. But they think I’m different, so sometimes it’s really tough to find a balance.”