On this day in history… Maria Sharapova begins her transition to clay court specialist
On 13th April 2008, Maria Sharapova won her nineteenth career title and her first on clay, as she beat Dominika Cibulkova 7-6(7) 6-3 in the final at the Amelia Island Championships. She would go on to win another seventeen singles titles in her career before retiring in 2020, ten of which would come on the dirt.
Maria Sharapova caught the world’s attention in 2004 when, at just 17 years of age, she won Wimbledon by downing the red-hot favourite and two-time defending champion Serena Williams in the final. Her first few years on tour were very successful, highlighted by another win over Serena at the 2004 WTA Finals, and tournament victories at the 2006 US Open and the 2008 Australian Open. Her win in Melbourne marked her third Grand Slam title, and 17th title over all. An 18th came the next month in Qatar and at this point the 20-year-old Russian had played a total of twenty-five singles finals, none of which had been on clay.
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In March, Maria withdrew from Miami due to a shoulder injury and her first tournament back was on the green clay of the Bausch & Lomb Championships held at Amelia Island. Despite going in as the top seed, Sharapova was tested in the early rounds, barely overcoming Medina-Garrigues 7-6(3) 5-7 7-6(1) in the third round and then being pushed again by Alona Bondarenko in the quarter-finals, but eventually prevailing 6-7(9) 6-3 6-2. The semi-final was set to be a blockbuster encounter with Lindsay Davenport but the American, for the first time in her career, withdrew from the match due to illness and handed Sharapova the walkover victory; with it came a first ever appearance in a clay court final. The bonus day of rest may have been pivotal as the other semi-final went on to be a hard-fought three-setter, with Cibulkova battling past Alize Cornet. Come Sunday, Sharapova was able to defeat the Slovakian for her first clay court title. With the monkey off her back, it would not be her last.
Sharapova reached a total of 59 singles finals, winning 36 of them. Her 26th final was her first on clay but 7 of the last 11 finals she played were on the surface, including 6 in a row between April ’13 and June ’14. In total, she reached 13 finals on clay, winning 11 of them. Her only two losses both came against Serena Williams and both in 2013, in the finals of Madrid and Roland Garros.
After winning Rome in 2015, Sharapova said, “Five or six years ago I was afraid to open the front door to the clay season […] I’ve definitely progressed and improved [on clay], that’s no secret. It was not an overnight success.” At the end of her career, her win record on clay was 82.4%, her highest of any surface, and after picking up her first clay court title in ‘08, Maria never won another Grand Slam title outside of her two title runs on “la terre battue”, making Roland Garros the only Grand Slam title that she won more than once.
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