Does anyone remember Maria Sharapova? You know, the defending French Open Champion? The worldwide superstar? The No. 2 player in the world?
Perhaps you know her as Grigor Dimitrov's girlfriend?
Despite the fact that Maria Sharapova is 11-1 this clay season and has marched to the quarterfinals without dropping a set, she has been decidedly under the radar this fortnight.
That's because according to most of the media, this French Open belongs to Serena Williams.
As long as she is still standing, everyone else is an afterthought. That includes last year's runner-up Sara Errani, 2009 Roland Garros winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, Australian Open Champion Victoria Azarenka and yes, even Miss Sugarpova herself.
While a few years ago it would have seemed normal for Sharapova to be left out of the conversation at the French Open, last year she revived her legacy and reinvented her clay-court image by winning the French Open crown.
Not many people thought she was capable of doing this, especially not after a career-altering shoulder surgery.
But while she marched impressively through the field in 2012, only dropping one set along the way, she did get some lucky breaks. The highest-seeded opponent she faced was No. 4 Petra Kvitova, who has never been a clay-court powerhouse. She got a surprise opponent, Sara Errani, in the finals.
And most importantly for Sharapova, Serena lost in the first round.
Maria Sharapova's struggles against Serena Williams have been well-documented. She is 2-13 against the younger Williams, including two losses this year and 12 straight losses overall. In fact, the last time Sharapova beat Serena was 2004.
That's right—the last time Maria Sharapova defeated Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo and Anastasia Myskina were the top three players in the world. Rafael Nadal hadn't ever played the French Open. Vince Spadea was a Top 20 player.
There is no sugarcoating it: It has been a long and devastating drought.
Given those stats, it's really no surprise that with Serena Williams currently on a 28-match win streak, all eyes are upon her. Serena has dominated Maria Sharapova over the last decade and dominated clay season this year. Why should Sharapova be involved in the conversation? Why shouldn't she be forgotten?
Well, because she's Maria Sharapova. The second you count her out is the second she often reminds you why you shouldn't.
While Serena Williams has ghosts at every corner in Roland Garros, Sharapova only has good memories from last year. Even though Serena Williams has dominated Maria Sharapova, she has not dominated the French Open. In fact, Serena hasn't even been back to the semifinals in Paris since 2003.
Maria Sharapova feels comfortable on these courts, and it shows in her performance. She has a patience on this surface that she doesn't have on hard courts or grass. She allows herself time to construct the points, to read her opponents, to go to a Plan B. She gives her game a little bit of time to breathe. She enjoys the fact that things slow down a bit.
In her fourth-round match against a very on-point Sloane Stephens, Sharapova fought off her opponent's power and the tricky windy conditions by slowing things down, zoning in on each point and hitting with more purpose.
Nothing about the match was effortless, but that didn't rattle her. She didn't panic. She played her game.
It was a performance brimming with self-confidence and maturity, qualities that Sharapova lacked on this surface a few years ago. There was nothing flashy about it, but it got her to the quarterfinals.
Next, Sharapova will face her old Bollettieri Academy foe Jelena Jankovic, who is playing the best tennis she has played in years. If she makes it past the Serb, Victoria Azarenka will likely await (if she gets past Maria Kirilenko).
As the tournament goes on and her draw gets tougher, the spotlight will get closer. But, as long as Serena Williams is in the tournament, expectations will also get lower.
It is rare that a defending champion can come into a tournament with so little pressure, but that's how things shook out for Sharapova this year. After all, she's already won this title and completed her career slam. She's already silenced critics and proved she can play on this surface.
She's lived up to and exceeded most expectations so far, and now it's up to her to steal the spotlight and the pressure back if she wants it.
She has to prove that she can take on Serena Williams and successfully defend a Grand Slam title. She has to prove that she deserves to be remembered in situations like this.
For now, she has a little bit of breathing room. Perhaps, just as she's done on the clay courts, she can figure out a way to use it to her advantage.
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