Switching her racquet to her off hand while she ran, Sharapova lifted a left-handed forehand reply and was already streaking to her right when she swapped hands again, lashing a righty forehand down the opposite sideline that drew an errant volley from a surprised Li. That stirring bit of dual-hand dexterity gave Sharapova the decisive break, prompted her three-man support team to leap to its feet in synchronized fist-pumping celebration and brought Li to her knees.
Even when Sharapova had her hands full today, she created solutions. In a final featuring the last two French Open champions, Sharapova was a shot better in successfully defended her Stuttgart title with a 6-4, 6-3 conquest. It was Sharapova’s 16th straight clay-court victory and her 29th career title.
Li stomped Sharapova, 6-2, 6-2, in their last meeting in the Australian Open semifinals in January, nearly eight months after she was two games from a straight-sets win in the 2012 Rome final only to see Sharapova storm back for a gripping, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5) victory. Intent on an imposing start today, Sharapova thumped a deep backhand crosscourt to break serve in the seven-minute opening game with an emphatic “Come on!”
Staying low and driving through her shots, Sharapova was sharper in a crosscourt forehand exchange, drawing a netted forehand to break for 4-1. Then Li dug in with defiance. The second-seeded Chinese broke back at 30 when Sharapova sailed a forehand long then fought off three break points in a seventh game that spanned more than seven minutes, holding for 3-4.
The Sharapova serve was a weapon that sharpened as the match progressed. She served 76 percent, surrendered serve only once and closed the 52-minute first set with an oppressive love hold, earning praise from coach Thomas Hogstedt, who told his charge: “You’re playing great, just keep going after the ball…Stay in her face.”
Li struck the ball well, for the most part, tried to stretch Sharapova wide and exploit her edge in movement by making the 6’2” Russian hit on the run. It’s a sound strategy, but a tough task when Sharapova is cracking the first strike with authority and controlling the center of the court. Ravaging Li’s second serve, Sharapova won 15 of 22 points played on Li's second serve and broke four times. Li saved a break point for a 3-2 second-set lead, but at 3-3 Sharapova blasted a return with such force it knocked Li backward. That body blow gave Sharapova break point and set up her improvised dazzle for the decisive break.
At times, Sharapova struggled to find her range in three-set victories over Lucie Safarova, Ana Ivanovic and Angelique Kerber en route to the final, but she was dialed in for much of the match today in becoming the first woman since Lindsay Davenport in 2005 to defend Stuttgart.
“I thought if I had to play another three sets today I didn’t have a chance, so it was either two sets or I was finished,” Sharapova said with a laugh afterward. “The final is the hardest one to win and she’s had such great wins this week, so I’m very fortunate to be in this position today.”
At this rate, she’s going to need a bigger garage. Collecting the keys to the blue Porsche parked behind the court-side clock in the corner of the court, Sharapova, who was named Porsche’s first global brand ambassador last week, is building a budding fleet of sports cars. The reigning French Open champion is on a roll with three straight finals to her credit and her clay-court winning streak intact on the road to Roland Garros.