x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Siberia is still where the heart is for Maria Sharapova

The No 2 wins in style in first round at French Open and says she is learning to love clay.

Maria Sharapova is extremely proud of her Russian roots.
Maria Sharapova is extremely proud of her Russian roots.

Maria Sharapova may have been blessed with grand slam victories and an A-list lifestyle which have made her the richest sportswoman in the world, but she is most proud of her drab, Siberian hometown.

The girl who left Europe for the United States as a nine year old before becoming a Wimbledon champion at 17 and a future world No 1, said yesterday that every time she hears her town of Nyagan mentioned, she gets the shivers.

"I am really happy and proud of where I come from. It's fun to hear when they announce me and they don't just say born in Russia, they actually say I was born in Nyagan, Siberia," Sharapova said.

"Every time I hear that, you can hear the crowd go 'whoa'. Like, I don't think people actually realise that's where I was born. When they say it I feel so proud.

"It's like when they say I've won a grand slam or been No 1, when they say where I am from, I get goose bumps because I am so proud of coming from there and getting to the position I am in today."

Her town could do with all the publicity it can get.

On Wikipedia, Sharapova is listed as the western Siberian town's only notable person while, under the culture section, Nyagan, with a 50,000 population, boasts a regional museum which opened in 2000.

What makes it wonderful for the 25 year old?

"Great coats. I don't know ... blankets."

Yesterday, dressed all in black, she took just 48 minutes to race into the French Open second round with a 6-0, 6-0 humiliation of the hapless Romanian Alexandra Cadantu.

She once described her movement on clay as like a "cow on ice" but is now trying to shed that tag as she bids to complete her grand slam collection by winning a maiden Roland Garros title.

The No 2 seed came to Paris after capturing titles in Stuttgart and Rome her demolition of Cadantu demonstrated her progress.

How did she get there?

"There's no substitute for work and physical work and hours on the court, hours from the court," she said.

"Also just experience. You learn. Over the years you learn what your body can take, what it can't, what you need, how you recover better."

"Little by little ... I'm not ever going to be lifting 50-pound weights anytime soon or ever, but it's little things, little muscles, little explosive steps that I feel like I've improved."

The improvement changed Sharapova's approach to the French Open as she now feels she has enough in the tank for a seven-match, two-week tournament on clay, with her previous best being two semi-final appearances in 2007 and 2011.

"Physically ... and mentally ... I believe I can play seven matches and I can play them all tough and I can recover well, which really [used to]hurt me a lot," she said.

"Before I would play three-set matches where I'd have to dig deep in the beginning of the event ... but [then] for the next match it was just like the balloon popped."

The balloon did not pop yesterday and Sharapova cracked a few smiles after dismissing her opponent, although she denied that she had not been given a real challenge by her opponent despite not dropping a game.

"Nothing is ever easy, because you have to face whoever is across the net," she said. No matter how good or bad they're playing, you still have to win that match. That was just my goal today," she said.

Sharapova, who has a chance of taking over from Victoria Azarenka as the world No 1 depending of the Belarusian's run in Paris, blew kisses to the crowd after wrapping up the match when Cadantu sent a backhand long on the first match point.

There is no clear favourite to win the title at Roland Garros, with Azarenka having no past pedigree on clay, her best past result in Paris being the quarter-finals, while question marks remain over Serena Williams's fitness and ability to last the two weeks, while defending champion Li Na has failed to convince.

Sharapova acknowledged the openness of the event as she said: "I think everyone has a good chance.It's always about who takes their chances.

"Of course I'm really happy with the way my preparation has been coming into this tournament. I feel like with every year I have improved and I enjoy it much more."

She will face Japan's Ayumi Morita for a place in the last 32 of the competition tomorrow.

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