If they had put their arms around each other's shoulders, Maria Sharapova and Li Na would have looked, for all the world, completely like Chris and Martina at the close of one of their big matches. The similarity was nevertheless there: If you'd just walked in or tuned in, you wouldn't have had any idea who had won. Both sported big grins, and both threw their arms in the air in a "What did we just do?!" fashion.
It may not have been the best match of this season, but it was easily the most unusual. The skies in Rome have been clear all week, but today, it rained. And then it rained some more. When the court is made of red clay, players can play in the rain, up to a point. That point was in question on several occasions during the women's final, and chair umpire Kadir Nouni let the competitors determine when to stop and when to play on.
Not only was it raining, but helicopters were continually buzzing over the court. Nearby football fans were yelling and cheering. Fireworks went off. Police sirens screamed. The event made a U.S. Open night match sound like a day in a small town library. But Sharapova and Li kept on playing.
That would have been enough to qualify the match as strange, but then there were the dramatic comebacks that occurred as one of the tour's best forehands went against one of the tour's best backhands. Li took the first set 6-4, then went up 4-0 in the second. But if you knew anything about both Li and her oppononent, you knew that the scoreboard was deceptive. Li, unfortunately, is as famous for choking as she is for destroying opponents with that forehand. She let Sharapova in, and before you knew it, it was 4-all.
There was more drama to come. Sharapova--the defending champion--won the second set 6-4, then went up 4-1 in the third. Suddenly, Li came roaring back and won four games in a row. There was a rain break. Sharapova, serving at 5-all, 30-40, hit a forehand winner to save a championship point. The match went to 6-all. Li slipped on the clay, a sign that there was just too much water, so the tiebreak was delayed for a long time while the rain came down hard.
When the players came back, Sharapova went up 3-0 right away. Li made yet another comeback, and evened the score at 4-all. Sharapova then broke Li's serve, but Li broke right back. Finally, Li hit an all-or-nothing forehand shot that went ever so slightly over the line, and Sharapova became the champion for the second year in a row. The opponents played for over two hours and 52 minutes, in conditions that were about as bad as they come.
Both women approach the French Open as potential winners. Li won the French in 2011, and--while her season hasn't looked that great so far--she showed today that she's ready to go on a title defense in Paris. Sharapova has never really been considered French Open champion material, but given her recent Stuttgart and Rome titles, she's looking better all the time. Like Li, Sharapova has found her form on what is supposed to be her worst surface.
Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, who won the Madrid title, won today in Rome, too. The Italian pair beat Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina 6-2, 7-5 in the doubles final. The Rome title is the team's fifth title of 2012; they did not drop a set all week.