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Old May 24th, 2012, 01:04 AM   #4178
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Re: ** Masha News and Articles! ** Vol. 2

Steve Tignor about Rome's final http://blogs.tennis.com/thewrap/2012...s-part-ii.html
Quote:
There will almost certainly be better, or at least saner, women’s finals in 2012, but it will be hard for any of them to offer as much as the one we saw in Rome between Maria Sharapova and Li Na. There was rain. There were helicopters. There were airplanes. There was soccer around the corner. There were hooligans on the march. There was not one, but two, epic chokes. There was a two-hour delay right when the match appeared to have finally wound to its conclusion. There was a third-set tiebreaker that ended 7-5 and was decided by a shot that landed no more than an inch wide. There were laughs about it all as the two women shook hands, and this succinct description from Li afterward: “The match was a joke.” Then there was a trophy ceremony that featured two French players, Mary Pierce and Yannick Noah, who could barely speak Italian, with the theme to Chariots of Fire as a soundtrack—a fitting end to a wacky day.

It should also be said that there were a lot of quality shots from both women, and this match, distractions and all, was as enjoyable as it was exasperating. The rallies were fast-paced and, when neither player was melting down, the winners flowed. Over its course, Sharapova and Li each showed why they could win at Roland Garros in a few weeks, as well as reminding us that neither is exactly a safe bet.

Sharapova, who won her second straight Italian Open, proved again how much her game has improved on clay. If she’s not an expert at sliding into her forehand—she still loses balance when she’s forced to move to that side—she has at least made herself competent at it on the backhand side; it’s not an easy thing to learn if you didn’t grow up on dirt. And when she was able to get set, she was the superior ball-striker. This win will also serve as a reminder, not that Maria really needs one, that she’s never out of a match until, as Li put it afterward, “the umpire says game, set, match.” On the downside for Sharapova, her serve, so solid in the controlled indoor conditions in Stuttgart, faltered again in Rome’s wind and rain and noise. She lost her toss at crucial moments in the first set, and again when she was ahead in the third. And when Li was able to push her to the forehand side, Sharapova struggled to get back into rallies.

On Li’s side of the net, for a set and a half she played the best tennis she’s played since she won the French last year. She showed one more time how well she moves on clay, and how, when her forehand is clicking and everything is in rhythm, she can control the rallies against anyone. She won 15 of 17 points during one stretch in the second set, a run that only Serena Williams is normally capable of putting together against Sharapova. But Li also showed that, like most rhythm players, she’ll start to lose the beat at a certain point—i.e., when she’s trying to close out a big match. It would have been uncanny, if it hadn’t been so predictable, to see Li lose her groove and start guiding her shots once she went up two breaks in the second. When a 4-0 score turned to 4-2, and Li sent a flat-footed backhand long, her long suffering husband, Jiang Shan, leaned forward and flashed a wry, pained smile—he must have know what was coming, and that it wasn’t going to be pretty. When his wife double-faulted a few minutes later to go down 4-5, he leaned all the way over and stared at the ground.

Looking forward to Roland Garros, each player should be pleased with this performance. Li, while she couldn’t close, has found her best form just in time. And Sharapova, with her wins in Stuttgart and Rome, has split the four major Roland Garros tune-ups with Serena Williams and will go to Paris as one of the favorites, along with Serena and Victoria Azarenka. Maria also found a way through the Foro Italico madness. She didn’t double fault in the decisive tiebreaker, came up with a key service winner at 3-2, and put her forehand at 5-5 smack in the corner, where both lines meet. She’s now 7-0 in three setters in 2012, and goes to Roland Garros with her best chance yet of completing a career Grand Slam.

Still, that wasn’t what made yesterday’s final memorable. “The mind is an amazing thing,” Tennis Channel commentator Rennae Stubbs said as the normally iron-willed Maria was going through her own, much less predictable, collapse in the third set from 4-1 up. You won’t find many matches that expose that fact more clearly than this one. Watching Sharapova and Li turn into completely different—i.e. much worse—players when they had a lead made me wonder: Why do we fear success so much more than failure?

What I’ll remember most is seeing Sharapova, down 5-6 and serving at 30-30, take an easy high forehand, drill it into the net, and then, because she couldn’t think of anything else to do at that terrible moment, pull her ponytail over up over her head. On the next point, match point for Li, Sharapova got another easy high forehand. She didn’t hesitate, and put it safely away for a winner. For Maria, especially on clay, persistence . . . well, you know what it does.
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