Pounding her clenched left fist against her thigh and oozing intensity as visibly as the sweat streaming from her forehead, Maria Sharapova's love of a good fight remains undiminished. Tennis' glamour queen isn't afraid to get down and dirty when the job requires it.
Playing with grit and guts, Sharapova saved a match point in the ninth game of the second set and rallied past fifth-ranked Samantha Stosur, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-5, in a gripping three-hour marathon to move into the Stuttgart semifinals. She'll face either Petra Kvitova or Angelique Kerber.
For years, the sight of Sharapova on the other side of the net represented a dead end in the draw for Stosur, who lost nine consecutive matches to the former No. 1 before finally breaking through in the WTA Championships last fall. For a time, it looked like she might start her own winning streak today.
Denying her taller opponent access to angles by jamming her with drives down the middle, Stosur managed her weaker backhand wing effectively. She sometimes followed her high-bouncing topspin forehand by sending off-speed, slice backhands slithering near the 6'2" Sharapova's shoelaces, forcing her to stoop low. Sharapova saved a set point in the first to hold for 5-5. In the tiebreaker, a Stosur backhand down the line, followed by a Sharapova double fault, gave the Aussie two set points. She claimed the 58-minute set on a Sharapova forehand error. The U.S. Open champion's high level of play left one observer skeptical over her ability to sustain it.
"She's playing good; no way she can keep up this level," Thomas Hogstedt, Sharapova's coach, told his charge after the opening set. "You're hitting great returns deep; keep going for it."
Midway through the second set, Stosur's no-pace slice return coaxed an errant backhand for break point. Creeping inside the baseline to receive a second serve, Stosur stung a forehand return down the middle and Sharapova netted a reflex reply. The first break of the match gave Stosur a 4-3 lead, and she quickly consolidated at love for 5-3. Sharapova stared down a match point in the ninth game, but did not blink.
Serving for the match, Stosur snapped—she broke a string for the fourth time, sending a forehand ballooning beyond the baseline. She picked up a new stick but flattened a forehand into net as Sharapova broke back for 5-5. Stosur saved a set point with an ace down the middle to force another tiebreaker, which featured three lead changes. Stosur surprised Sharapova with a backhand winner down the line for 5-5, but badly bungled a wild backhand wide to hand Sharapova another set point, which she converted to level the match.
Empowered by her comeback, Sharapova began taking charge in the baseline exchanges and earned break points in the fifth and seventh games of the final set, but could not convert. The pressure paid off in the 11th game, as Sharapova punished deep groundstrokes to break for 6-5. Opening the following game with her 10th ace, the three-time Grand Slam champion finished a high-quality clash with 43 winners, compared to Stosur's 37.