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Sharapova sinks Li after epic battle

ESPN staff
May 20, 2012 « Gebrselassie victory delivers warning to Farah | Chartbeat test »
Maria Sharapova successfully defended her Rome title © PA Photos
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Reigning French Open champion Li Na suffered an almighty collapse in Sunday's Internazionali BNL d'Italia final against Maria Sharapova, losing in three sets having been within two games of victory.

Li has not lifted a WTA crown since she clinched her maiden grand slam at Roland Garros 12 months ago. That statistic looked set to change when she was utterly dominant at 6-4 4-0 in Rome, but a sudden implosion sparked a catalogue of unforced errors as Sharapova defended her title with a 4-6 6-4 7-6(5) victory.

Li had carried a slight advantage into the final, having been granted a walkover in the previous round by Serena Williams' back injury. Nonetheless, her returning abilities in the first half of the match proved far superior to Sharapova, who was broken four times.

Sharapova was struggling to come to terms with a rival who has caused her much bother in recent outings. Having won their first five meetings, the Russian had since lost four of the most recent five heading into this weekend's encounter.

The first set saw the two players exchange breaks as the score progressed to 4-4. However, the overall pattern of play largely saw Sharapova responding to Li's direction, and it was a well deserved moment when Li broke again to take the set 6-4.

Sharapova was looking for a second title of the year after her earlier triumph at Stuttgart, but her first serve was repeatedly punished at the start of the second as Li raced to a 4-0 lead. Two breaks did the damage, with Sharapova winning one of seven points on first serve.

The match seemed over, but suddenly Li lost all self-control as she allowed Sharapova to break not once but twice to get the second set back on serve. Where Sharapova had struggled on first serve, Li's problem was a complete loss of focus, and it cost her as the match was forced to a decider.

Riddled with unforced errors, Li's composure had by now utterly dissipated, handing her rival another break at the start of the third set. As her game totally unravelled Li conceded eight straight games to the champion, who broke again for 4-1. Sharapova had two chances on serve to make that 5-1 but this time it was her nerve that went as Li rediscovered her form to level at 4-4.

An unlikely tiebreaker loomed as the scores progressed to 5-5 and 30-30, but then rain arrived to introduce even more drama to a quite erratic final. Upon resumption both players held serve to force the breaker - with Sharapova saving match point, before another bout of rain delayed the start of the shootout.

Sharapova moved into a 3-0 lead in the tiebreak and, despite a brief wobble after that, managed to close out the victory.

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