Despite a persistent drizzle, spectators stayed glued to their seats at the Foro Italico. In the final of the Internazionali BNL D’Italia defending champion Maria Sharapova roared back from a 4-6, 0-4 hole to vanquish Na Li 4-6, 6-4, 7-6.
In the first set, Sharapova got the initial break to go up 2-1. However, Li quickly captured the next game to get back on serve.
With Sharapova serving at 4-5, some critical service miscues allowed Li to bag the first set.
Since Sharapova is not known as a great mover on clay, Li exploited that weakness well. The Chinese woman went on a tear winning four consecutive games to begin the second set. With a 4-0, double break lead, Li appeared to have both hands on the trophy.
Perhaps, being so close to the end caused Li to get jittery. Courtesy of a double fault on break point, Sharapova got on the board in the second set. Then, after holding serve, Sharapova received a few more donations from Li to get back on serve at 3-4.
Sharapova won six straight games, breaking three times, to push the championship into a decisive set.
Early on in the second set, Sharapova looked in a daze as Li completely dominated. Now, it was her opponent with a similar expression.
Subsequent to sealing a break to open the third set, Sharapova stared at 0-40. Sharapova regained her footing to consolidate. Later, Sharapova secured a second break to extend her lead to 4-1.
Most viewers would have believed that the match was over at this point, but, more drama was to come. Suddenly finding the form which helped her in the first set, Li erased the double break lead to equalize the set at 4 all.
Soon, Li inched ahead 5-4. With Sharapova missing an easy smash, Li arrived at match point. With a gusty forehand, Sharapova wiped away Li’s championship point and eventually squared the set at 5-5.
Ultimately, the victor had to be settled in a tiebreaker. Following an over 90 minute rain delay, Sharapova went up a mini-break and built a 3-0 advantage. Again though, Li surged back to knot the proceedings at 5 all.
But by inducing a mistake from Li, Sharapova had championship point. When Li’s backhand landed inches wide. Sharapova banked the trophy.
Sharapova improved her record in clay finals to 5-0 coming on the heels of defeating world number one Victoria Azarenka in Stuttgart last month. Moreover, the Russian is now 7-0 in three set matches this year.
Sharapova was elated with the outcome, yet, she recognized that it “could have gone either way. . .in a match like this there is no loser”.
Li got a free pass into the final as Serena Williams never took court for their semifinal showdown due to a back injury. Li was just two games in the second set and one point in the third from hoisting her first trophy since the 2011 French Open.
Serena is undefeated on clay this season including titles in Charleston and Madrid. On the other hand, Sharapova is demonstrating that she possesses the skills necessary to conquer the red dirt. So, it will be fascinating to view how the championships shape up at Roland Garros.