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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Debate: Will Maria Sharapova end her wretched record against Serena Williams?

The rivalry between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova has been the fiercest of women's tennis in the modern era. Not so much in terms of on-court, where Williams holds a 19-2 win-loss record and has won the past 18 consecutive matches, but a mutual animosity has ensured many of their meetings carry an extra edge.

And it appears their next encounter, in the fourth round of the French Open on Monday, will be no different after Williams fanned the flames with her response to claims made by Sharapova in her memoir Unstoppable.

Bragging rights, as well as a place in the Roland Garros quarter-finals, will be up for grabs on Monday. Will Sharapova take advantage of Williams' relative lack of match fitness to end her run of defeats against the American? Or will Williams extend her dominance over the Russian?

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Read more:

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Jon Turner, assistant sports editor

Sharapova's time to strike

Maria Sharapova has hit form at just the right at the French Open. Christian Hartmann / Reuters
Maria Sharapova has hit form at just the right at the French Open. Christian Hartmann / Reuters

It has been a largely disappointing year or so for Sharapova since her return from a 15-month doping suspension in April 2017. It started encouragingly enough with a semi-final run in her comeback tournament in Stuttgart, but the only other highlight of last season comprised a title in Tianjin, China against a rather ordinary field.

If last year proved a struggle, 2018 has not exactly ushered in an upturn in fortunes. A combination of a persistent arm injury and lack of form culminated in a run of four successive defeats and saw Sharapova fall outside the top 50 - some way short of her pre-suspension ranking of No 7.

But the arrival of the European clay court season has seen Sharapova rediscover some of the form that has made her a world No 1 and two-time French Open champion.

The first signs came in Madrid last month before the Russian's tournament was ended by the red-hot form of Kiki Bertens in the quarter-finals. Then in Rome, Sharapova reached the semi-finals where she narrowly lost to world No 1 Simona Halep.

As results and performances improved in each tournament, it seemed Sharapova was peaking at the right time for the French Open. Based on her form in Paris so far, that is precisely what has happened.

Sharapova, seeded 28th after climbing back up the rankings following her Madrid and Rome exploits, had to overcome a mid-match wobble in the first round against Richel Hogenkamp, but has been untroubled since.

A straight sets win against talented youngster Donna Vekic followed in the second round, but it was Sharapova's victory over Karolina Pliskova in the third round that sent out an ominous warning to her rivals. Dropping just three games against the sixth seeded Czech, Sharapova completed a dominant performance in just 59 minutes.

It seems Sharapova's game has fallen nicely into place. Her forehand in particular has been impeccable and her general game strategy has been largely spot on. She remains susceptible on the second serve and her mobility has never been the greatest, but the 31-year-old is playing with the authority of a five-time grand slam champion again.

Across the net on Monday will be her greatest adversary, but the Williams Sharapova will be facing is still well short of her all-conquering best following her lengthy absence to give birth in September.

Williams, 36, is competing in just her third tournament of the year. Before the French Open, the American had played only four matches and none on clay. She has certainly got progressively better in Paris and the power is all still there, but her lack of conditioning was apparent in the second round during her three-set victory over Ashleigh Barty.

Williams was allowed to play to her strengths against fellow power-hitters Kristyna Pliskova and Julia Goerges in her other matches, but Barty caused plenty of problems by extending points and making Williams move.

Sharapova, fully aware she will get blown away in a slugfest, will look to do much the same and is better equipped than Barty to absorb the Williams power.

Williams may hold a psychological advantage given her past dominance over Sharapova, but the Russian has always been mentally strong and will not be affected by history. Instead she must realise that this represents her best chance to end her near 14-year wait for a victory over her greatest rival.

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Graham Caygill, sports editor

Pressure is off Williams

Serena Williams has been impressive to reach the French Open fourth round. Caroline Blumberg / EPA
Serena Williams has been impressive to reach the French Open fourth round. Caroline Blumberg / EPA

Serena Williams will have the psychological advantage when she steps on court on Monday against Maria Sharapova.

The expectation to win the match is on her opponent and the 23-time major winner knows it.

The fact Williams labelled the Sharapova as the favourite to progress from their fourth round encounter at the French Open was classic mind games.

Sharapova has not beaten Williams since July 2004, losing their last 18 encounters in what has been a one-sided rivalry to say the least.

This is Williams's comeback grand slam following her hiatus from the sport to become a mother for the first time last September. Monday's match will be only her eighth since her return to the WTA Tour in March and she is clearly a work in progress as she looks to rediscover her best.

But she will know, and Sharapova will know, that most within the tennis community have the Russian to win this match.

She has been back in action for a year since her return from a doping ban and has played some good tennis in Paris, and in the build-up tournaments.

If Sharapova cannot beat a Williams lacking match sharpness, then when can she?

That will be the question nagging away at Sharapova, especially if she starts slowly and falls behind early in proceedings.

Williams knows the pressure is on Sharapova and was happy to exploit it by naming her favourite.

Behind the scenes the 36 year old will not believe that for a second. The American did not get to the top and win her array of titles by not backing herself at every turn.

Williams, so long the No 1 in the women's game, will be enjoying the fact that this is genuinely a match where she has nothing to lose.

Of course she can lose the match, but in terms of reputation it would have to be a 6-0, 6-0 hammering from Sharapova to really hurt her here.

Clay is Williams's weakest surface, even though she is a three-time champion at Roland Garros, and she is nowhere near the level that have seen her dominate the women's game.

Williams can go into this match with the burden of being the favourite on her rival, a situation she will relish.

She may not be at her best but the tenacity and the will to win remains as strong as ever.

She came from a set down to beat 17th seed Ashleigh Barty on Thursday, and then she made a potentially tricky encounter with 11th seed Julia Gorges into a straightforward affair as she won in straight sets on Saturday.

She is getting better the more time she spends on court and Sharapova will be aware that it will not be the player who struggled at Indian Wells and Miami facing her on the other side of the net.

Williams would have had the mindset of using the French Open as a tune up for Wimbledon next month, her most successful major with seven titles to her name.

But this French Open draw is opening up and a fairytale victory nine months after giving birth is a very real possibility.

Sharapova is playing well, but the mental advantage that Williams has over her, and the fact she is getting better with every match, means it will not be seen as a shock if the American books a spot in the quarter-finals.

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