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In a see-saw match with both players hitting first and asking questions later, it was Maria Sharapova who emerged victorious, defeating no.1 seed Caroline Wozniacki 7-5, 6-3 to reach her first final at the Foro Italico. Her most recent title was in Strasbourg back in 2010, and victory on Sunday would be a defining point in this stage in the career of the Russian who secured three Grand Slams before being hampered by a persistent shoulder injury.
“This is not about me looking back and getting better or worse, this is about starting from the beginning and getting better than I was before and improving,” said a steely-eyed Sharapova after the match. “At this tournament, I have improved with every match I have played. I don’t want to look back and see where I was. It’s about winning or working and trying to create new things and getting better as a tennis player.”
The tie saw no fewer than 11 breaks of service (in just 21 games), but Sharapova was quick to defend both her own and her opponent’s play. “We are on clay and I think placement is important and maybe not aces so much. You need to try to work the point and get a good first look at the first shot. Sometimes it is slightly easier to break on clay than it is on other surfaces because you try to make a very good return, especially if she has time and she can stand pretty far back and play great defence. That’s the way it goes.”
Standing between Sharapova and her greatest success to date on this, the slowest of surfaces, is Australian no.6 seed Sam Stosur. “This is going to be our first time playing on clay and her best successes are on clay – her best results. She is playing very good tennis and clay really suits her game. But yes, it is a great feeling to be in the finals of this event no matter who I am playing tomorrow. I am just going to go out and just go for it.”
If she goes for it and it comes off, then there is no-one in the world who can live with Sharapova.
Maria Sharapova versus Caroline Wozniacki: As it happened
6.06 pm: Sealed with a break – to love! Maria Sharapova defeats Caroline Wozniacki 7-5, 6-3 and will face Sam Stosur in Sunday’s final. This match went back and forth for over an hour, but once Masha realised that the Wozniacki forehand was crumbling, there was only one player in it. The Dane is world no.1 by dint of her consistency week in, week out which is something that every other player can only aspire to, but she will be anxious to start winning some of the bigger tournaments soon if she is not to be seen as another nearly-woman à la Dinara Safina or Jelena Jankovic.
And as for Maria? Well, she was fortunate yesterday against Azarenka but today she hit the ball crisply and once she had her opponent sussed out, she motored home with plenty to spare. It promises to be a great final tomorrow.
5.58 pm: Shhhhhhh. You hear that? It’s the tide turning. Maria powers her way to a 4-3 lead, taking the (what is it? what is it? Come on, you all know…) crucialissimo seventh game of the second set.
5.48 pm: See Maria? I told you. 3-2, Masha breaks back to 15. Simple as.
5.45 pm: 3-1, Caro breaks again. Note to Maria: stop trying to grind down her backhand, it won’t work. Pound her forehand.
5.35 pm: After a game of all the deuces in which both players cover every grain of sand on the court, Maria breaks back using some stunning forehands. 1-2, Maria’s service to come.
5.26 pm: Caro holds then breaks to go 2-0 up in the second. Maria opts for a change of racquet – what will it bring?
5.08 pm: And she does, cool as a cuke! Sharapova serves out calmly and this time takes the set, 7-5. Quite an up-and-down set there, with Caro’s forehand and her lack of plan B letting her down. Maria in the main played the kind of tennis she showed earlier in the week in cruising through the earlier rounds. Caro has often been found at at the highest level (hence the lack of a Slam to her name as yet) and she needs to pull something special out of the bag here.
5.04 pm: Call me Jimmy four-breaks. 6-5, Masha breaks to love, gobbling up the Caro second service and will serve for the set in two minutes’ time.
5.01 pm: Just call me Joey three-breaks. 15-40 as Masha spoons an underhand drop volley way into the tramlines, and though a big first’un saves the first, a poor second’un next up has her on the back foot and she fires one wide. 5-5.
4.55 pm: 5-4 as Sharapova breaks again! Before it was Caro’s hard first services that she returned with interest, this time it was her second ‘uns that she stepped in and battered. Caro saved the first BP but the second was the charm. Masha to serve for the set.
4.50 pm: Jiiiiiinx! It goes to deuce, Caro then bangs one into the corner for her first BP and waddaya know? Maria nets an easy forehand. 4-4!
4.43 pm: 4-3 Maria, service to come. Maria’s returning Caro’s biggest serves with interest – methinks the no.1 needs to use a little more variation. And of course she still needs to break back at some point (soon!) if she is to save this set.
4.32 pm: 3-2 Maria, still a break up. Caro has just held comfortably but is still chasing the game. Maria’s looking much better than against Vika last night when she was a set down before the Belarusian suffered an elbow contusion. Brad Gilbert reckons that Maria is playing Agassi-style clay tennis – not moving much, just hitting the cover of it and letting the ball do the work.
4.25 pm: Ooh, Maria holds then breaks to 15! Some amazing backhands and cross-court forehands, taking the ball early and doing it early in the rally, not letting Caro – that great grinder – settle. Good tactic (like a 3-time Slam champ with 10 years on the circuit needs me telling her it’s a good tactic).
4.18 pm: OK, here we go with Wozniacki – Sharapova! The h2h is 2-2 – Maria taking the first two back in the day, Caro levelling the series at the US last year and Indian Wells this year. Caro’s guaranteed to stay no.1 whatever happens here, while Maria will be up to no.8, ahead of JJ.
Woz has served to open and held to 15, all first services. Confidence from the dishy Dane.
1.31 pm: Sam Stosur defeats Na Li 7-6(6), 6-0 and earns herself a crack at the title! That second set was gone in 60 seconds, almost. Li shoulda, coulda won the tie-break but even in the early going in the second she was battling, taking Stosur to deuces and carving out a break point. Once she failed to break second time around and it was 3-0, it was as if she lost all self-belief. She won only three points on her own service all set, the Chinese world no.4 (as opposed to six on Sam’s service…) A shame that the second set was over so quickly but the first was a cracker.
1.26 pm: 5-0. Those early exchanges in the second set have taken the wind out of Nails’ sails and no mistake – it’s one-way traffic here.
1.20 pm: Break-hold-break to open the second for Sam and she suddenly is only three games from the final. She broke Li to 15, and then struggled on her own services, having to save a break point but she did so. Both Sam service games were tight with Li absolutely crushing her second services, but when it came to the crunch – the big points – Sam served first ‘uns and held.
1.08 pm: Sam takes the opener 7-6(6). She served out to love to force the breaker then was behind for most of it due to some incredible Li crosscourt winners. Then the Chinese no.4 seed froze, DFd, failed to take set point then Sam served a big ‘un on the T to take it 8-6. Li hits some Soderling-esque cross-court winners from both wings, often on the backhand when the ball is
seemingly behind her and then she hits it crisply and with such accuracy that you would think she’s hitting off a tee. The winners look great, but it’s high-risk – when she makes an unforced error and sends one wide or long early in a rally, you want to say “Na, take your time, don’t try to hit a winner five shots into a rally!” Oh, the impetuosity of youth!
12.48 pm: Ooh, and then out of nothing, Na takes Sam to deuce, carves out her first break point then puts a good return on a second serve and it’s 5-5.
12.40 pm: 5-3. Na can’t get a read on Sam’s kicking services. And she’s in trouble on her own at the moment, deuces wild, serving to stay in the set and she’s just stared down to break and set points.
12.25 pm: 4-2 Sam, easily conserving her one-break lead with some strong first services.
12.15 pm: OK, we’re under way with the Chinese no.4 seed serving to open. Sam has won both their previous meetings, in straight sets to boot, including on the Stuttgart clay last year. Sam’s last three finals have all been on clay (Charleston which she won, Stuttgart and the French which she lost, all last year). Na meanwhiel is looking for her first clay title and to make her third final of the year. Ooh, and Sam breaks her to 30 to open behind some biiiiig forehands, pushing her opponent back, back, back and forcing her to hit shots that just aren’t deep enough and sit up, waiting to be put away.
11.45 am: Ciao a tutti and welcome to the women’s semi-finals! Hoo cha cha, this is going to be a big day. Li Na versus Sam Stosur to open, followed by Caroline Wozniacki versus Maria Sharapova. Both on Centre: Nails and Sam at 12, Caro and Masha at 4-ish.
Want to know my predictions? (You ought to – I beat Robbie Koenig into second place in yesterday’s journalists’ competition!) Stosur in two, Woz in three and what a final that will give us. Tweet me what you think @DrewLilley and don’t forget that the ATP semis are in a separate blog on the home page as well.