Sharapova outlasts Li for Italian Open crown
Rome, Italy (Sports Network) - Maria Sharapova was two games away from another disappointing title match loss, but the Russian star found another gear and instead captured her second straight Italian Open crown.
Sharapova earned a 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) victory over China's Li Na on Sunday, waiting out a two-hour rain delay just before the third-set tiebreak, and will head into next Sunday's start of the French Open with her second title of 2012. Both have come on clay, as she also claimed the Stuttgart tournament last month.
Before beating Victoria Azarenka in Germany three weeks ago, Sharapova's season included losses in three title matches. She fell to Azarenka in both the Australian Open finale and again a few weeks later at Indian Wells, then lost to Agnieszka Radwanska in the Miami final. Her only loss in the past three events, however, was a quarterfinal setback to eventual champion Serena Williams in Madrid.
"This is a great win for me going into Roland Garros," said Sharapova. "It will be nice to have a week off now, after playing three tournaments in the last four weeks. I'll have to time to recover, mentally and physically."
Sharapova hadn't dropped a set this week entering Sunday's final and beat a handful of talented players along the way with victories over Ana Ivanovic, Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber.
Sunday's match didn't start well for the No. 2 player in the world. Sharapova had her serve broken twice in the first set, then found herself down 0-4 in the second. Things quickly turned around.
Sharapova won the next six games to force a decisive set and started the third with a break of serve. She then fell behind 0-40 in the second game before winning the final five points and soon after built a comfortable 4-1, 40-15 edge.
Li, the reigning French Open champ, then regrouped and won the next four games for a 5-4 edge. It remained on serve from there and the 12th game featured a match point for Li after Sharapova missed an overhead. Sharapova, though, fired a forehand winner on the next point and eventually held before play was stopped because of rain.
After the lengthy delay, Sharapova won the first three points of the tiebreak. Li managed to stay close and tied it at 5-5 before Sharapova gained her first match point with a perfectly-placed forehand into the corner that Li could not return. Li then drilled a backhand wide on the next point to give Sharapova the title.
"Obviously it's tough to rest for two hours and then play again, but I still have many positive things from this match," Li noted. "Playing a tough match like that showed me I'm strong, and physically I felt great. I can take a lot of positive things away from this week and I think I'm ready for the French Open."
With wins in two of her last three clay events, Sharapova could be primed for a run toward the only Grand Slam event she has yet to win. She has twice been a semifinalist at Roland Garros, including last year when Li knocked her out.
Despite Sunday's loss, Li may be rounding into form just in time for the start of her French Open title defense. She still has not won a tournament of any kind since claiming her first career Grand Slam championship last spring at Roland Garros.
Li didn't fare too well after becoming the first Asian player -- male or female -- to win a major title. She posted a match record of just 6-9 for the remainder of the 2011 campaign, including a second-round exit at Wimbledon and a first-round flameout at the U.S. Open.
The 2012 season began with a run to the final at Sydney, where Li lost to Azarenka, but she didn't make it past the quarterfinals in any of her subsequent six events leading up to this tournament.
Sharapova improved to 7-4 lifetime against Li, including two wins this year. She also prevailed in a 6-3, 6-0 beating at the Miami quarterfinals in March.
Sunday's victory gave Sharapova her 26th career title in 42 finals and was worth a first prize of $385,000. Li fell to 5-7 all-time in finals.
05/20 15:19:14 ET