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The Italian Open women's final lived up to expectations and more as the fans were treated to almost 3 hours of exhilarating tennis as French Open champion Li Na of China and 3-time Grand Slam winner and current world no.2 Maria Sharapova battled it out on Court Centrale. Li won the opening set 6-4 and raced to a 4-0 lead in the second before Maria stormed back into the contest, winning 8 games on trot to pull ahead 2-0 in the final set. Sharapova was to extend that advantage further to 4-1 before it was Li Na's turn to fightback, and when rain brought an early end to proceedings, the women were deadlocked at 6-6 in the final set with a tiebreak left to determine the Italian Open champion. After almost a 2 hour delay, the match finally resumed with Sharapova doing just enough to squeeze out the match 7-5 in the breaker.
Maria Sharapova made a good start to the match, going up an early break in the third game only for Li Na to break right back. The rest of the opening set went with serve till the 10th game when Li stitched together a run of points to break Sharapova and nick the set 6-4.
Li appeared to be cruising to an easy win as she broke Sharapova twice to race to a 4-0 lead in the second set with the Russian diva winning just 1 point on serve in her first two games. However, the momentum shift happened in the all important 5th game as Li despite saving three break points, dropped serve to give Sharapova a lifeline. Maria grabbed it with both hands as she rattled off 6 straight games to storm back into the match and level it at a set apiece.
The Russian superstar carried the momentum into the final set, and broke Li in the very first game to go up an early break. Li Na though is no rookie, and the Chinese veteran showed a lot of heart going up 0-40 on the Sharapova serve in the very next game. However, Maria found her first serve when she needed it, and won 5 straight points to consolidate the break and nudge ahead 2-0.
Li ended the run of 8 games against her to get on the board in the final set, but it appeared to be just a minor flicker of life in the old bird as she dropped serve a second time in the 5th game to go behind 4-1.
With the match seemingly on her racquet, Sharapova showed some signs of nerves and double faulted at deuce in the following game to give Li a lifeline. It was one the Chinese woman grasped as she went on another run, winning 4 games on the trot to pull ahead 5-4 in the decider. Sharapova produced a near perfect service game to level the match at 5 all before things got tight again. Li saved a breakpoint in her following service game to nudge ahead 6-5 before Sharapova saved a match point on her serve to force the match into a deciding tiebreak.
By now the Gods had seen enough, and the heavens opened sprinkling the court with a light drizzle. The players had to leave the court with the match poised on a knife's edge, and 2 hours and 44 minutes had been insufficient to separate the pair.
It took almost 2 hours before the players returned for the conclusion of what had been a terrific match, and an oviously 'cold' Li Na started the tiebreak poorly with a double fault. Sharapova raced to a 3-0 lead only to be reeled back in for 5-5 as the Chinese veteran refused to understand the meaning of the word quit. Sharapova won the following point on her serve, and when Li Na hit a backhand long on the next, Maria had pulled off an incredible win to retain her Italian Open title.
Despite the defeat, Li Na will take a lot of confidence from her performance this week into the French Open later this month. The Chinese woman may not have won a tournament since her Roland Garros triumph last year, but she came exceptionally close to ending that run today, quite literally being a point away from victory. Maria Sharapova meanwhile will head to Paris as one of the favourites to capture the only Grand Slam that has thus far eluded her. Maria was beaten in the semis by Li Na last year, and will believe she has the goods this year to challenge for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
File Photograph Copyright: Porsche Tennis Grand Prix
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