A match that began as a classic encounter was increasingly dogged by difficult conditions and ended with both women laughing at the absurdity of it all. In the end, Maria Sharapova defended her Rome title, beating Li Na, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5).
Sharapova, whose clay-court credentials improve all the time, was the first to break, leading 3-1 after landing some excellent deep backhands—her more reliable wing, as well as the side she slides the best to—but it was Li’s forehand that quickly became the star of the show. Going down the line and cross-court with equal ease, Li broke back, showing the kind of effortless generation of pace, flowing from one groundstroke to the next, with which she won Roland Garros last year. As the set developed, Li increasingly looked the stronger player, going down the lines to drag Sharapova from side to side, and pummeling the Russian’s forehand to elicit error after error.
At 4-5, Sharapova’s serving let her down: First a double fault, then two serves out wide to Li’s forehand—which she read like a book for winning returns, putting the second seed set point down at 30-40. Having made one ace already in the game, she could not come up with another, and Li pounced on a weak second serve, forcing the error from Sharapova for the set.
As the rain started to fall—and a helicopter, patrolling nearby football fans ahead of tonight’s Coppa Italia final, flew repeatedly low over the stadium—Li went from strength to strength, bossing a passive Sharapova all over the court with an answer for everything the Russian tried. But just as I was getting ready to write about Li’s impeccable timing in recovering her form just ahead of defending her major title, however, she suffered an unexpected but total collapse. At 4-0, with Sharapova having won just six points in the set, Li started to miss, and miss badly. Sharapova is far too fine a competitor to miss an opening like that, and she quickly evened the match up, breaking three times and serving out the set six games later.
Having lost six straight games earlier in the match, Sharapova now won her eighth straight to lead Li 2-0 in the final set. It was 4-1 and all but over when Sharapova took her turn to collapse—and Li in turn found her game—leveling the match at 4-4. The increasingly torrential rain turned the court to mud, and it became a battle to simply finish the match as much as with the opponent, with both women determined not to give in. After gritty holds punctuated with debate about whether to stop or continue, the match finally stopped at, of all times, 6-6.
After a mere two-hour break, the competitors took the court again to decide the title with a tie-break. A shanked forehand by Li gave Sharapova the initial mini-break, but the French Open champ got back on serve courtesy of a deep return and backhand winner for 3-4. At 5-6, Sharapova saw her first match point and took it after Li’s backhand down the line went wide. With the call confirmed by Kader Nouni, Sharapova and Li laughed together at the net, a fitting end to a match that could have been one of the best WTA finals we’ve seen recently—and was, instead, one of the strangest, albeit most gripping.