Things were looking up at the start for Maria Sharapova today. She was hitting the ball much more cleanly than she had in her surprising straight-set loss to Sam Stosur the day before. More important, as TennisTV commentator Rennae Stubbs noticed, she was constructing points with more thought and patience.
Looking back at what would turn into an equally surprising and frustrating 7-6(4), 6-4 defeat for Sharapova, point construction, or the lack of it, would prove crucial for her. In the match’s most important 10-minute stretch, the last seven points of the first-set tiebreaker, Maria would lose the thoughtfulness and patience that had brought her so close to winning that first set.
The Russian appeared to have the breaker sewn up when she jumped out to a 4-0 lead. Li was the one whose weakest shot, her forehand, was melting down, while Sharapova’s weak spot, her serve, appeared to be strong—two of those first four points came on service winners. Then Sharapova, seeing the finish line, began to rush. She rushed a backhand long and an easy forehand into the net. She was no longer building points, but hoping to win them with one powerful shot. Ironically, while her serve remained steady, Sharapova’s best shot, her backhand, betrayed her. She lost three straight points, the lead, and eventually the set, by sending two backhands long and one into the net. A match that had looked to be hers—Sharapova went up an early break in the first set and served for it at 5-4—was suddenly slipping out of her control.
Li relaxed from there and played the type of athletic and controlling tennis from both wings that she’s capable of, but which she so often can’t pull off. The key, as it usually is, was her forehand. If there’s no tension in her arm, if she’s taking it early and making it down the line, her opponent is in trouble—it’s the most variable aspect of Li’s game. Naturally, once she got up 5-2 and served for the match, the tension came flooding back in on that side. At 30-30, she put an easy forehand into the tape and began snapping at her long-suffering husband-coach in the first row. The same thing happened when Li served for it again at 5-4. She opened that game by shanking a forehand 10 feet wide and went down 15-30 by dropping one feebly into the net. The heat was on, Sharapova was finding her game, Li was coming undone. But again it was Sharapova’s strength that let her down. At break point, rather than work the point, she pulled the trigger early and hit a backhand wide. Li, given second life, gathered herself, her forehand, and her nerves together to close it out.
She also closed out Sharapova’s slim chances of overtaking Caroline Wozniacki for the year-end No. 1 spot, and dealt the Russian's chances of reaching the semis here a severe blow. Sharapova is now 0-4 in sets played.
It had been awhile since we’d seen a relaxed and dictating Li Na. She had only played one match since the U.S. Open, a dismal opening-round defeat in Beijing. Today she got a little help from an impatient opponent at a clutch moment, and it was enough to loosen her right arm up and get her playing confidently again for the first time in months. We've seen what Li can do when she’s feeling this way in Melbourne and Paris; now she’s back in the mix in Istanbul.