Maria Sharapova closing in on all-time greats

Maria Sharapova‘s emotional Australian Open final triumph has elevated the Russian stunner to within touching distance of a place in the pantheon of tennis’s all-time greatest players.

Still only 20, Sharapova is now just one successful French Open campaign away from joining an elite band of seven players in the 40-year professional era to have completed the coveted career grand slam.

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Only tennis legends Margaret Court Smith, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King and Serena Williams have managed the rare feat.

Williams, who claimed her “Serena Slam” at the 2003 Australian Open, is the only woman in two decades to have won all four majors at least once, while Graf, with her “Golden Slam” in 1988 – which also included Olympic Games glory – and Australia’s own Margaret Court in 1970 are the only two to complete the set in a calendar yearThe grand slam sweep has eluded a celebrated list of modern-day champions including former world No.1s Evonne Goolagong Cawley (no US Open), Monica Seles (no Wimbledon), Martina Hingis (no French Open), Venus Williams (no Australian or French Open) and the sport’s reigning queen Justine Henin (no Wimbledon).

Yet Sharapova, who won Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 2004 before adding the US Open to her CV in 2006, has the opportunity to become the second-youngest woman behind only the great Graf – 19 years and three months – to climb tennis’s Mount Everest.

Twice a teenage quarter-finalist at Roland Garros, Sharapova recorded a French Open PB last year with a run to the last four which has given her renewed belief that she has the game to test Henin’s dominance of the gruelling claycourt major.

Henin completed a hat-trick in Paris last year and Sharapova says achieving the slam in the French capital would be something special.

“The French Open, I’ve said it many times, is probably going to be one of the biggest challenges of my career, but I love those challenges,” Sharapova told AAP after outclassing Serbian star Ana Ivanovic 7-5 6-3 in Saturday’s much-hyped “Glam Slam” final at Melbourne Park.

“That’s why I play tennis, to go out there in big moments and challenge myself, and I think I have a great opportunity to do it.

“I’m doing better and better (on clay) and I’m starting to feel like I belong out there at times.

“I’m feeling my ground better on the clay and my body’s developing. I’m feeling stronger and physically fitter – I’m able to play longer matches and, mentally going into the match, I know that I can withstand whatever amount of time (is required) against Justine or whoever.”

The ultra-consistent Sharapova has now featured in four finals and 10 semi-finals in her last 15 grand slam events.

Yet, in a chilling warning to her rivals, the Russian believes she is still some way off producing her best tennis.

“I know I’ve already won three grand slams and I know I keep saying this, but I don’t think I’m at the peak of my career yet,” Sharapova said after upstaging three of the world’s top four players and not dropping a single set at the 2008 Open.

“I don’t think my body has 100 per cent developed into its own. I’ve got many more things to learn in my tennis and many things to build and improve.”

Sharapova dedicated her Open triumph to her American coach Michael Joyce’s mother who died last year and “completely changed my perspective on life”.

The Siberian-born, American-based Sharapova will rise to No.4 in the rankings on Monday, while Ivanovic – a French Open runner-up also last year – will climb to second behind Henin after reaching her second grand slam final.

Sharapova’s official website is available at: http://www.mariasharapova.com/

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