Sunday, May 20, 2012

ROME 2012: Sharapova Guts Out Title Win Over Li

Julian Finney/Getty 
Julian Finney/Getty 
Maria Sharapova continued her string of surprisingly successful clay court performances by retaining her Italian Open title with a gut-wrenching,  rain-drenched 4-6 6-4 7-6(5) win over reigning French Open champion Li Na in Rome. The match took nearly 3 hours in playing time (2 hours, 52 minutes) but more than twice that in actual duration due to the inclement weather. It drizzled most of the day starting around 3pm and eventually the rain lead to a 2 hour break, astonishingly right before the decisive 3rd set tie-breaker.

The drama was not only in the sky but also on the court. When I started watching the match (after a long day walking around the centuries-old Foro Romano) the score was 6-4 4-0 for Li Na, who was then a mere two games away from claiming the BNL Internazionale d'Italia title after winning six games in a row. At that point, the Chinese player inexplicably started spraying the ball around the court with unforced errors and an inability to hit first serves and ended up losing the next eight games in a row; this resulted in her losing the second set 4-6 and being down a break before she was able to win another game, on serve. Sharapova was able to break serve again and eventually served at 4-1 in the 3rd set when the momentum suddenly shifted again when Li Na managed to break the Russian's serve and rattled off 4 consecutive games to grab the lead 4-5, on serve. The next 3 games were played in pouring rain, but all went with serve (although Sharapova also had to save a championship point in the 12th game after mangling an easy put away on the deuce point to give her opponent a chance to break and win the match). Finally at 6-all the umpire stopped play due to rain and the two combatants had to wait for nearly 2 hours to play a tension-filled tiebreak which Sharapova won when a Li backhand down the line missed the sideline by millimeters.

Sharapova ended up with twice as many double faults (10 to 5), more unforced errors (59 to 56) and less total points (101 to 102) but with a win.

The Russian has to be considered  a front-runner for the Roland Garros title which starts next week, since Serena Williams withdrew with a back injury on Saturday instead of playing her semifinal with Li Na and World #1 Victoria Azarenka withdrew after playing a pro forma match so that she would not be fined by the WTA for skipping the mandatory Rome tournament.

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