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Sam Stosur (6) versus Maria Sharapova (7)
Having eliminated the top two seeds between them, Stosur and Sharapova have certainly earned the right to contest the title match at the Foro Italico on Sunday. The Australian has gone through the week without dropping a set, and while her Russian opponent was lucky that Victoria Azarenka hyper-extended her elbow just after winning the first set, she has been on imperious form otherwise, dispatching Ekaterina Makerova and no.10 seed Shahar Peer for the total loss of six games, and then overcoming Caroline Wozniacki in a tough semi-final.
Stosur’s highlight so far was silencing the Centre Court crowd and gaining a (small) measure of revenge for her French Open loss when she defeated Francesca Schiavone 6-3, 6-4, and she refused to blink in the semis when Na Li came from a break down to lead 5-3 in the first set tie-break, winning five of the next six points and then six games in a row to book her final spot.
The two have met no fewer than seven times in the past, with the 6’2” Siberian winning every time including in the Round of 16 at Miami just two months ago. They have never met on clay however, which suits Stosur’s punchy style and is the only surface on which Sharapova has yet to win a Grand Slam. She has negated the conditions this week however, using her reach and her strength to avoid the need to slide and turn matches into the kind of hitting contests she favours. But if anyone can match Maria strike for strike, it is Slammin’ Sam…
Rafael Nadal (1) versus Novak Djokovic (2)
It is what we all expected and, if we are brutally honest, it is what we all wanted. At the moment, it simply does not get any better than a Djokovic – Nadal final. They have met 26 times before, but like your favourite dish or your favourite film, you might not want it every night but you would certainly not be averse to having it served up once a fortnight.
And yet we almost didn’t have it. After 37 consecutive wins dating back to the Serbian Davis Cup triumph last December and a 35-0 start to the year, and after strolling to the first set 6-1, Djokovic nearly, oh so nearly came unstuck against Andy Murray on Saturday night. The Scot served for the match at 5-4 in the decider, and if the thickest of net cords had not come to Nole’s aid at 15-0 to Murray, who knows what would have happened? But when you are as good as Djokovic has been this season, you make your own luck.
Nadal meanwhile struggled in the opening round to overcome Paolo Lorenzi, an Italian qualifier ranked 147 places below him in the world, but since then has gone from strength to strength – quite literally. It transpired that he was suffering from a high fever which has gradually faded throughout the week, and his performances have improved commensurately, starting with the 6-4, 6-2 win over compatriot Feliciano Lopez and culminating with his second-set master-class in the 7-5, 6-1 defeat of dangerous outsider Richard Gasquet in the semi-finals.
The head-to-head says that Rafa has a clear advantage 16-10, but figures lies and liars figure. The world no.1 stretched his lead to 16-7 at the end of last year, winning the finals of the US Open (to complete the career Slam) and then in the round robin stages of the ATP World Tour Finals when Nole’s mind was on the Davis Cup, but since then, it has been a different story. At Indian Wells and Miami the Serb outlasted the Majorcan, but that was “just” the US hard court swing. When he won – in straight sets (straight sets!) – in Madrid last Sunday, defeating the king of clay on his home sand, the balance of power shifted.
In any other circumstances, Nadal would be such a red-hot favourite that the book would have been closed on him. Yet Djokovic seems to be in a state of grace at the moment, as his match with Murray proved. What will play into Nadal’s hands is that Djokovic was on court for three hours on Saturday and finished at 11 pm – 17 hours before the final starts. Rafa spent 90 minutes on court and finished five hours earlier. On such details a championship match can be decided…