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One challenging step along the way over the next two weeks could come in the quarterfinals, where Serena might have to face three-time major champion Maria Sharapova, who is seeded second and also a popular pick.

“She’s such an experienced player that has been under so many different circumstances and achieved so much in her career,” Sharapova said. “When she’s fit, she’s extremely strong on the court and hits a very powerful ball. That makes her very dangerous.”

That sounds like a rather fair scouting report for Sharapova, too, even on clay these days. Having once described her movement on the slow red surface as something akin to a “cow on ice,” the Russian can get around well on the stuff.

“I’m much more comfortable on this surface. Even though I don’t play too many tournaments on it throughout the year, I feel like with every year that has come, and the clay-court season that arrives, I feel physically stronger,” Sharapova said. “That’s definitely helped me in the recovery process, as well. I’m enjoying it a bit more. Before, I felt like in matches I was saving myself a little bit because I didn’t always believe that physically I could play seven matches in difficult, heavy conditions in Europe.”

She’s coming off her second consecutive title on clay at the Italian Open, where she beat Li in the final Sunday.

Citing a bothersome back, Serena withdrew before she was supposed to face Li in the Rome semifinals. But that feels “a lot better” after treatment, the American said.

If good health is one key to Serena’s success, another is the mental boost she gets from having Venus alongside her.

Venus, who turns 32 next month, resumed playing in March after more than six months off the tour. A first-round match Sunday against 19-year-old Paula Ormaechea of Argentina will be her first Grand Slam competition since the first round of the U.S. Open on Aug. 29.

“I just don’t know anyone out there who has gone through everything that she’s gone through and just remaining completely positive,” Serena said about her sister. “It’s never easy for anyone who’s going through what she’s going through. To do what she’s doing and play a professional sport is, I think, a whole new level of mental strength. …

“Everything that she’s doing is so inspiring for me.”

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Howard Fendrich can be reached at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich