French Open Betting: Sharapova shows the mental strength to be a champion

Maria Sharapova
Blowing kisses . . . Maria Sharapova enjoys that winning feeling in Paris
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She never got the chance to shock Serena Williams, but Ralph Ellis says Maria Sharapova can upset a few more of the favourites in France...

"Betfair’s market makes 2016 winner Garbine Muguruza the marginal [1.84] favourite for their quarter-final, but the reigning Wimbledon champion has shown little form on clay before arriving in Paris and little mental strength either."

There's a passage in Maria Sharapova's book where she talks about handling dark times. "When you don't feel on top of the world," she asks, "how are you going to make yourself grow?"

Given all the former world number one has gone through in the last couple of years since getting banned for using the drug meldonium, and then struggling through her comeback, it's an interesting question.

The book has a follow-up too: "Who are you going to surround yourself with who will make you feel better and stronger?"

The answer seems to have been both her old coach Thomas Hogstedt, the Swede who first taught her how to play on clay, but also her fans who stuck by her while the tennis world turned cold.

She's said that where they once they asked for autographs and selfies, instead they went up to her to talk about how much they wanted her to come back. And a girl famous for being self-obsessed and isolated has changed her character and embraced the world a good deal more.

Moving well on clay

The result is that she's into the quarter-finals of the French Open - albeit thanks to a walkover because Serena Williams didn't feel fit enough to face her - and the other players in her section of the draw will definitely not fancy meeting her.

At the start of the Madrid Open I picked out Sharapova's improvement since returning to work with Hogstedt and while she went no further than the quarter-finals in Spain, there was another step forward by reaching the final four a week later in Rome.

At Roland Garros she has given glimpses of the 2012 and 2014 champion model of Maria, moving superbly on the clay, serving strongly, and hitting the ball hard. She looks fit, and the rest from not having to fight past her bitter rival Serena will help her too.

She might have begun the tournament having to work through a tough three-setter against Dutch girl Richel Hogenkamp but since then the progress has been - well, serene - including a third-round 6-2 6-1 demolition of Karolina Pliskova that was seriously impressive.

Inspired by Nadal practice session

Having in early May been [15.5] to win the French Open she's now [7.8] and worth backing at that - even if she's in the toughest half of the draw.

Betfair's market makes 2016 winner Garbine Muguruza the marginal [1.84] favourite for their quarter-final, but the reigning Wimbledon champion has shown little form on clay before arriving in Paris and little mental strength either, throwing away a 4-0 final set lead against Daria Gavrilova in the second round in Rome.

Did I use the words mental strength? There are few who are better blessed in that department than Sharapova. Her crusade to return to the top of the women's game after a ban which she still believes was unjustified would have made Boadicea, the Ancient Queen who drove the Romans out of London, look like a wilting wallflower.

She's left no stone unturned in bringing her form and fitness up to scratch for Paris, including grabbing the chance for a hitting session with Rafael Nadal when she found herself waiting to follow him on to a practice court.

He'd qualify on her list of "somebody who will make you feel better and stronger", I'm sure. And you wouldn't rule out the idea of them both holding Roland Garros trophies by Sunday night.

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