Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sharapova wins thrilling, yet bizarre, Rome final

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.

9 comments:

Todd.Spiker said...

Surprising stat of the day: Sharapova is 5-0 in career clay court finals.

Who knew?

Eric said...

4 of Maria's last 5 titles have been on clay. I don't think we can say that clay is her worst surface.

I'm still thinking about how many games Li was up 40-love or love-40 and she just let those games go...

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, Maria did not win Madrid this tear.

Diane said...

She certainly didn't! I had my mind on something else completely (namely, Errani's run) and that slipped out. Corrected. And of course, Serena Williams won Madrid.

Diane said...

It would be a real piece of tennis irony if Sharapova won the French Open after getting beaten in recent major finals some thought she would win. Kind of the other side of the Conchita Martinez coin.

Contending for the French Open title, ability-wise, I'd say Williams, Sharapova, Li, Kvitova, Stosur, and I guess Azarenka. But that's "on paper." In reality, Maria and Serena are both looking quite good.

Eric said...

I think I would put Azarenka before Kvitova and Stosur...just thinking about Kvitova's physical condition and Stosur's H2H record against players like Azarenka and Sharapova. And then factoring in mental, I think Azarenka might even do better than Li...

I kind of wish Serena hadn't pulled out. It would have been good to see her play Li and Sharapova on red clay...you know for FO predictions :)

Thanks for the posts Diane!

TennisAce said...

Clay has become Sharapova's best surface because it gives her what the other surfaces don't ... time. Time to return serve. Time to set up her groundstrokes. time to move her opponent around. On the faster surfaces which are slow as well, her shots do not go as deep, and the other women who have beaten her on those surfaces are much better movers and they hit harder, deeper and flatter. That being said, Rome while it is a slow surface, plays a little bit faster than Roland Garros. It will be interesting to see if she is able to get over the semifinal hurdle at Roland Garros.

Diane said...

I wasn't placing them in any parricular order--just thinking out loud, so to speak. But I agree that Stosur and Kvitova don't look as good for it as Azarenka.

Eric said...

Jankovic just needs to lose a few more first rounds and then she'll be ready to be No.1 again.