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Sharapova beams ahead of French Open title defence


Maria Sharapova wins the French Open

Maria Sharapova wins the French Open

Maria Sharapova wins the French Open

Maria Sharapova has described defending her French Open title as one of the greatest honours in tennis.

The Russian completed her set of grand slam crowns at Roland Garros last year, beating Italy's Sara Errani in the final.

It was the culmination of years of gradual improvement from Sharapova on her least favourite surface, and the world number two is wearing the mantle with pride.

She said: "I think there's always a bit of pressure in everything that you do. Obviously it wouldn't be very fun without that type of feeling.

"It's very meaningful to come back as a defending champion. It means you have done something pretty good, and you're coming back into that position and you're trying to defend it.

"I think it's one of the best honours you can have as a tennis player. I'm really looking forward to the opportunity of defending my title."

At 6ft 2in, the particular challenges of moving on clay were always likely to take Sharapova time to master, but the feeling she was making progress fuelled her optimism that the French Open title was within her grasp.

She said: "I think it was not something that I woke up and just became good at or woke up one day and said, 'I'm going to do good'. I always knew that I'd have to work extremely hard to get to where I am today.

"It never came easy for me to play on the clay, and that's why it took many years. But yet I felt like with every year I was getting closer. I got to a couple of semi-finals, and last year I just felt like everything came together in many different ways."

Sharapova has had a fine season, albeit one where her losing streak against world number one Serena Williams has extended to 12 matches.

The American is the hot favourite to lift a second French Open trophy, and there are many obstacles in the way before Sharapova can think about a possible final meeting.

First up is Chinese Taipei's Hsieh Su-wei, and Sharapova is in the same half as third seed and Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka.

The Belarusian has overcome an ankle injury that sidelined her for two months and warmed up for Roland Garros by reaching the final in Rome last week, where she was heavily beaten by Williams.

Azarenka said: "Physically I feel pretty good. It was great to play those two tournaments as kind of a build-up for the French Open.

"Madrid was my first one; Rome I did much better. I felt like I was finding my game from match to match. It's time to play here. That's what this whole preparation has been about. I'm glad I'm physically ready."

Azarenka is one of only three players to beat Williams since the French Open last year, a run of 70 matches that has earned the world number one 10 titles.

That victory, in the final in Doha in February, was a big one for Azarenka, who had lost nine straight matches against Williams, including a US Open final in which she served for the match.

"I won that match but I lost my number one ranking," she said. "It's ironic.

"It was definitely a great win for me, and I'm looking forward to our next matches. Rome was a great time. It didn't go my way, but it's a great challenge and a great battle every time we play."

Williams heads the women players in action on day one tomorrow, with the top seed up against Georgia's Anna Tatishvili.

Errani and Ana Ivanovic also play their first-round matches along with Venus Williams, who was soundly beaten by Laura Robson in Rome last week.

PA Media