Sharapova is back, better than before

Simon Reed

It was a remarkable performance from Maria Sharapova as she steamrollered world number one Victoria Azarenka in straight sets to win in Stuttgart, and she made a big statement in the process.

In what was only Azarenka's second defeat of the year, the Belarusian was unable to compete with a very fired-up Sharapova, and it said a lot about the way her opponent imposed herself on the match.

Yes, Azarenka was treated for a wrist injury at the start of the second set, but by that point she had already lost the opener 6-1 in convincing fashion.

What was key for me in assessing Sharapova's performances in Stuttgart was the quality of her serve, which enabled her to take control of her matches without suffering any real blips.

Clay has never been her best surface, but the Russian will gain real confidence from her performances in Germany, and it was a real shock to see Azarenka beaten so comfortably.

The remarkable thing about the final in Stuttgart was the way that Sharapova fearlessly butchered her opponent from the back of the court with no respect whatsoever.

Sharapova, ranked second in the world, will now be buoyed ahead of the French Open after such a fine start to the clay-court season.

The 25-year-old played with such power and consistency with a brutally aggressive approach - it was a joy to behold given her struggles for form and fitness over the last few years.

Having said all of that, Sharapova is still not one of my favourites to win the French Open.

I remain unconvinced that she can deliver at Roland Garros to the extent of challenging in the final stages of the tournament in Paris.

My favourites for success on the French clay are undoubtedly Serena Williams, Sam Stosur and Azarenka.

Most likely to win the tournament is Serena, who was in quite stunning form at WTA Charleston, and on her day can play to a level that no other player can match.

I have seen some of the odds for Serena prevailing at Roland Garros, and there is some money to be had, let me tell you.

Despite a startlingly poor showing in the final in Stuttgart, Azarenka has the class and the ability to win the tournament, and she can really produce the goods when it matters.

Stosur is a very fine player on the clay, and she has real guile and intelligence in the way that she approaches the game, to match her tenacity and determination.

As for Petra Kvitova, the Czech's movement tends to let her down on clay, and her power and belligerent groundstrokes from the back of the court are not sufficient for her to succeed on the surface.

Sharapova can never be entirely discounted, however, and her experience and intensity should ensure that she will at least reach the quarter-finals.

From the last eight stage onwards, anything can happen.


Rafael Nadal's form at the start of this clay-court season has been absolutely frightening, and I cannot see anyone beating him.

The world number two overcame a valiant resistance from Spanish compatriot David Ferrer to prevail at ATP Barcelona, and claim a staggering 48th career title.

It was also Nadal's 34th crown on his favourite surface and, given the fact that he won the French Open last year in relatively poor form and condition by his incredibly high standards - it seems pretty inconceivable at present that he could be beaten this time around.

Of course, Novak Djokovic will make sure that he has his say at Roland Garros, but I cannot see past Nadal and it would take a very brave person to bet against the 'King of Clay'.

The final in Barcelona marked 10 years to the day since Nadal made his World Tour debut, and what an incredible career he has already had.

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