MADRID, Spain - When the Caja Magica was first unveiled at the 2009 Mutua Madrid Open, Maria Sharapova was working towards a comeback from a shoulder injury, one that required surgery and kept her off court for nearly a year.
She made her debut at the tournament a year later and lost in the first round to Lucie Safarova, but in the next few seasons showed marked improvement on red clay, a surface she infamously claimed she took to like a "cow on ice."
"I think, personally, the tournament has really grown on me," she said on Sunday after a straightforward win over Mihaela Buzarnescu. "The city itself has grown on me. Especially when I was younger, I wasn't a fan of playing on clay, so it was like my mindset wasn't always present. I really started to enjoy not only playing on this surface, but coming back to Madrid."
The former World No.1 at last made a Madrid final in 2013; by 2014, she was the champion, rallying from a set down to defeat a surging Simona Halep. The pair would meet again for another rousing final a month later at the French Open, where Sharapova captured her second title on the terre battue in three years.
"In the beginning, I felt like maybe the venue, when it was new, you still had to kind of create its history, create, like, memories. I feel like coming back now, now that I've won it, and I've also faced some really tough matches, ones that I've lost. I think part of that, when you come back, you always are able to relive those moments even though some of them are not the best ones.
"But I really enjoy it. Actually, I really enjoyed playing on those outer courts as well. I think I played a good match against [Samantha] Stosur on the stadium that I played at today. I love the intimacy of it. I think tomorrow I'll be playing on center court, so it will be nice to be back on there."
To book her spot on Court Manolo Santana, Sharapova had to win her first match since the Australian Open; a persistent left forearm injury has contributed to inconsistencies and a limited schedule that has seen her play just four tournaments since January.
"If you're asking me if I want to be losing early in a tournament and then withdrawing from a tournament while being injured and not competing for three or four weeks, then no, that's definitely not what I expect, and that's definitely not what I want to be doing," she said when asked about her stop-and-start season.
"Do I want to be ranked No.60, 70 in the world? No, I don't. Do I want to be losing first round? Absolutely not. That's why I'm still here, is because I'm not satisfied with those things and because I keep looking and getting better and working on things, making adjustments, not being stubborn on things that I believe will make me better.
"That's really what I can do for myself in my career, just like everybody else, no matter what their career is. Mine just happens to be in front of thousands of people. The losses are a little bit tougher, on a different level. We all face the same vulnerabilities, sometimes the same success, sometimes the same losses, whether it's personal, professional."
Eager to kick-start her comeback, she rehired longtime coach Thomas Hogstedt, with whom she worked through her evolution from "cow on ice" to French Open champion for the first time in 2012. A tough loss to Caroline Garcia at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix gave way to success against Buzarnescu in Madrid, playing one of her cleanest matches in the last six months.
"I want to be present. I want to be competing, playing well and improving, but also I want to have a good outlook on things.
"I thought I did a really good job of improving a few things that weren't working well for me in the previous months. I guess that's all that I can expect from myself right now. Just keep putting that effort in on the court."
Sharapova next takes on Irina-Camelia Begu for a place in the Round of 16; the pair first played in Madrid back in 2012, and the five-time Grand Slam champion is yet to lose a set to the Romanian, who stunned Jelena Ostapenko in the first round on Saturday.