12 13 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

PARIS – Maria Sharapova's pre-emptive mind-set, penetrating groundstrokes and killer mentality turned her into a potent force at an early age.

She won on Wimbledon's grass at 17, and added hard court majors at the U.S. Open and Australian before turning 21.

But since being sidelined for 10 months by shoulder surgery in 2008, she's had more success on clay than any other surface – a striking transformation for a player best known for her first-strike mentality.

On Tuesday, seventh-seeded Sharapova reached the French Open semifinals for the fourth consecutive year by beating Garbine Muguruza of Spain 1-6, 7-5, 6-1.

Sharapova next faces Eugenie Bouchard in the semifinals. The 18th-seeded Canadian defeated No. 15 seed Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain 7-6 (7-4), 2-6, 7-5.

Sharapova, the 2012 champion, weathered a slow start against 35th-ranked Muguruza – who earlier upset No. 1 Serena Williams -- before finding her range and reeling off nine of the last 10 games.

"I have that extra motivation to go further this year and to be back on this stage is a nice feeling," Sharapova, who lost to Williams in last year's final, said on court.

That the Siberian-born, Florida academy-trained 27-year-old has come back to this stage so often is one of the more surprising developments in her gilded career.

FRENCH OPEN: Gael Monfils gives France some hope

FRENCH OPEN: Five things to watch for on Wednesday

She once described herself as a "cow on ice" on clay. And no wonder.

For most of her career, she had a better winning percentage on hard and grass.

None of her first 18 titles were on clay. But nine of her last 13 have come on that surface, including her two titles in 2014 at Stuttgart and Madrid.

Since 2012, Sharapova has gone 52-4 on dirt (.928), better than her winning percentage on any other surface – and so good that her career-winning percentage on clay is now her best (.834).

Among active players, she also ranks first (.835), which would have been nearly unthinkable at the start of her career.

Sharapova says she never disliked clay but that her relationship with it started out slowly.

"It was very ugly in the beginning," Sharapova said after coming back to beat Samantha Stosur in the quarterfinals Sunday. "It was a big learning process for me, and I took it upon myself to get better, to physically improve, because I figured I'd have no chance if I ever wanted to achieve something on this."

Although still not a great mover on clay, Sharapova taught herself to be more patient from the backcourt. She also became fitter and stronger, which helped her bounce back from multiple, taxing matches.

"For me the recovery was quite hard," she said.

DAY 10 AT THE FRENCH OPEN PHOTO GALLERY:

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

Sharapova won her first claycourt title on faster green Har-Tru in 2008 -- before she had season-ending shoulder surgery that kept her off tour for 10 months.

Asked if the layoff could have inadvertently helped build the foundation of her claycourt game by boosting her overall strength and forcing her to rely less on her serve (which has never been the same), Sharapova didn't disagree.

"Of course, when you have a chance to really work on physical aspects of your game and you're able to maybe spend a bit more time in the gym than you would have when you're playing tournaments or not just on the court, it gives you a good chance to build your leg strength and overall strength, which was important for me," she said.

Voila!

Paris is now her most successful major over the last five years, including last year's runner-up finish and the 2012 championship that completed her career Grand Slam.

"I view her success and evolution on clay as symbolic of her career," said Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob. "She just finds a way. She worked and worked and figured out how to adapt her game. Winners win."

The game's evolution has also worked in her favor.

Clay is faster than it used to be, part of a general homogenization of surface speeds in the sport.

Bounces are also higher, thanks to racket and especially string technology that generate more spin.

A higher kick means the ball lands more easily into a tall player's strike zone, and that same player can better deal with shots above the waist. Sharapova is 6-2.

"You have faster surfaces and a higher hitting point," explains Wim Fissette, the Belgian coach of fourth-ranked Simona Halep of Romania, noting the success on clay of players like 6-9 ½ John Isner and 6-10 Ivo Karlovic.

Sharapova will need every ounce of her fighting reserves and confidence on clay when she takes on Bouchard in the semifinals.

The 20-year-old has the kind of assassin's instinct that made Sharapova a teenage champion. She even wears the Russian's clothing line and looked up to her as a child.

"We're not friends, so there is that," said Bouchard, who in January also reached the Australian Open semifinals. "We're in the semis of a Grand Slam, so I'm going to respect her but not put her too high on a pedestal and really just battle."

Sharapova won their two previous meetings, both in 2013, including a 6-2, 6-4 second-round defeat at the French Open.

Once an afterthought on dirt, Sharapova has learned to expect extended visits to Paris.

"I'm excited and happy to be in that position again," she said. "I have turned my results around."

12 13 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1h5mATx