(Writes through with quotes)
By Julien Pretot
PARIS May 26 The days when Maria Sharapova was struggling through the early rounds at Roland Garros are long gone as the Russian, who once described herself as a 'cow on ice' on clay, has matured into a feared competitor on the slow surface.
On Monday, the seventh seed took a step closer to a likely quarter-final showdown with defending champion Serena Williams, which will be a rematch of last year's final, after brushing aside fellow Russian Ksenia Pervak 6-1 6-2.
Whereas the statuesque Russian once struggled to keep her poise as she awkwardly slipped around the Roland Garros courts, her triumph in 2012 proved that she has mastered how to play on red dirt, a surface where endurance and patience go hand-in-hand.
"The clay was very difficult for me, because I had never had the mental confidence that I was able to play a three-hour match and have the opportunity to play in the semi-finals or finals, because I didn't recover that well, and I wasn't strong enough," Sharapova told reporters after she dodged the showers to set up a second-round meeting with Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova.
"It took me years to build that confidence in my body and ... my legs getting stronger and recovering on the court to make it a surface that I actually loved playing on, even if the conditions are like this."
In addition to her Roland Garros title, which completed her career slam, Sharapova also clinched claycourt titles in Madrid (2014), Rome (2011, 12) and Stuttgart (2012-14).
On Monday, she dropped serve once in the opening set but was never really bothered by the world number 156, hitting 17 winners in a one-sided encounter.
Pervak warmed up in army camouflage trousers and jacket, but her fighting spirit was not enough against Sharapova, who was sporting a pale rose outfit.
The match started on court Philippe Chatrier just over an hour late due to rain but Sharapova was done by lunch time, sealing it in 61 minutes on her first match point.
"There is always a bit more tension in that type of grand slam atmosphere. It's certainly more special, especially when you walk out on court," she said.
"Considering all that, I thought I played a solid match, did the things I had to do. Yeah, it's only the beginning right now." (Reporting by Julien Pretot, editing by Pritha Sarkar)
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