No wonder Maria Sharapova is hoping the organisers of this week's tournament here do not go too far in modernising the Foro Italico. Not only is the site one of the finest of any comparable tournament in the world, but the event also has good memories for the 25-year-old Russian.
This was where she recorded her first victory over a top 10 opponent – Elena Dementieva in 2004 – and winning the title here last year proved to be the launchpad for her best run since having shoulder surgery in 2008. In the subsequent 12 months, Sharapova has reached two Grand Slam finals and climbed to No 2 in the world rankings.
She began the defence of her title yesterday in cautious fashion. She beat the American Christina McHale 7-5, 7-5, but sometimes looked uncomfortable on the red clay, a surface on which she always used to struggle. Perhaps, like a number of other players, it will take her time to get used to the surface after playing on last week's controversial blue clay in Madrid.
"It was really about adjusting," Sharapova said. "I made too many unforced errors in the first set. Part of it was that she was extremely consistent and made me hit a lot of balls. Perhaps I tried too many winners so I was fortunate to win the first and then get back in the second. It was close. She has certainly improved since the last time that I played her. I look forward to improving for the next match too."
Sharapova was asked what she made of the recent improvements to the Foro Italico, which was built in 1935 under the instructions of Benito Mussolini. A new centre court, with more than 10,000 seats, was opened two years ago and there is a new third court this year. Sharapova is relieved, however, that the second court, named after the former Italian player Nicola Pietrangeli, is unchanged. Neo-classical statues of male athletes and soldiers, 12ft tall, stand around the court, which used to be the focal point of the complex.
"I can remember playing there when I was younger and thinking, 'Let's hope this doesn't change'," Sharapova said. "We're always making the stadiums bigger and more technological and it's nice to have something which is true to the city and represents the culture."
The one change Sharapova was not sure about was the new press centre. "There are about 40 steps up to get here and it takes a few minutes and huffs and puffs," she said. When a reporter pointed out that the media have to climb the stairs "about 40 times a day", Sharapova replied: "But you don't play a game of tennis before. After a big bowl of pasta perhaps it's good to do the stairs."