The sound of Sharapova's short preparation steps—her toes tap-dancing across the red clay sounded like a woman skipping on Saran wrap—were a prelude to the flat strikes she unleashed in fighting off six set points in the opening set. A skittish Ivanovic heard the footsteps and lost her way, squandering 3-1 leads in both sets as Sharapova staged ferocious comebacks, winning five consecutive games to close a 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory.
The reigning Rome champion reeled off her seventh straight win in the Eternal City. Sharapova has won 19 of her last 22 matches, including a sweep of Victoria Azarenka in last month's Stuttgart final, and while she wasn't always at her best today—she hit eight double faults and won just nine of 26 points played on her second serve—she showed her familiar spirit and steely competitive spine on crucial points.
This duel between Grand Slam champs and glamour queens offered rousing winners and wretched errors. But it began with promise for Ivanovic, who benefited from four Sharapova double faults in her first two service games to break for 3-1.
Serving at 3-5, Sharapova stared down her first set point when an anxious Ivanovic put a good swing on a forehand return but sent it long. Ivanovic is at her best playing on instinct, so you can't fault her for letting it fly, but Sharapova played the score more shrewdly at crunch time.
Serving for the set at 5-4, Ivanovic again could not seal the deal. The former French Open champion had five set points on her racquet, but Sharapova saved two with forehand winners and an increasingly fragile Ivanovic found the net on the others, sometimes casting concerned glances at coach Nigel Sears between points. Sharapova broke back for 5-5 when Ivanovic, who can lose the shape of her forehand and flat-line it under pressure, slapped another forehand into net, ending a struggle that spanned six deuces.
Leading 3-2 in the tiebreaker, Ivanovic opened the court with a slice serve but steered a forehand volley wide. That proved to be a costly miss. A stinging slice serve set up Sharapova's forehand winner down the line for 5-4. Two points later, the second-ranked Russian drove a diagonal forehand winner to complete the first-set comeback in 65 minutes.
Both women are so skilled at bludgeoning service returns with vicious intent that the server sometimes looked emotionally bruised as the toss went up. The 13th-seeded Serbian broke for a 3-1 second-set lead, but Sharapova smacked a swing volley to break back and incite her charge.
The win sets up a blockbuster quarterfinal clash of former top-ranked Grand Slam champions, as Sharapova plays 1999 Rome titlist Venus Williams for the first time in three years. The pair have split six career matches, with Williams winning their last two in straight sets (at the 2007 Wimbledon and 2009 Stanford), but this will be their first meeting on clay.