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Steve Flink: Sharapova better than ever

4/29/2013 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Only an elite few male or female players in the modern era of tennis have been more compelling than one Maria Sharapova. She has steadfastly pursued her craft year after year, withstanding serious injuries, making remarkable comebacks, restructuring her game to deal with the growing demands of her profession across a storied career. Sharapova just turned 26. She turned professional way back in the spring of 2001. She has concluded six years among the top five in the world, and has resided at No. 1, arriving for the first time in that lofty place back in August of 2005. She has secured four majors, and has achieved a career Grand Slam. She has been one of the most exemplary individuals in her profession; despite making exorbitant sums of money off the court because of her incomparable marketability, she seems to approach every tournament with an overriding mission to win, with an insatiable desire to succeed, and a steely resolve that is second nature to her.

Over the weekend, Sharapova secured her second singles championship of the still young 2013 season, claiming the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix title in Stuttgart (a Premier 700 event), defending that prestigious title with the kind of unwavering intensity and resilience that we sometimes take for granted. Sharapova had a long and arduous road to a final round contest against La Na. She was kept on court for three hours by the cagey left-hander Lucie Safarova before prevailing 6-4, 6-7, 6-3. Former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic gave Sharapova a stern test before Maria pulled that match out 7-5, 4-6, 6-4. And then Angelique Kerber--- the spirited, left-handed German who finished 2012 stationed at No. 5 in the world—matched Sharapova shot for shot all the way to 5-5 in the final set. Sharapova had served for the match at 5-3, and briefly it seemed that she might have let the match slip from her grasp. But the unshakable Russian collected eight points in a row to complete a 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 triumph.

That string of three set victories put Sharapova up against a rival who has knocked her out of two Grand Slam tournaments over the past three years. Li Na defeated Sharapova in the semifinals of the 2011 French Open in straight sets, and then took apart Maria 6-2, 6-2 in the semifinals this year at the Australian Open. It is entirely possible that Sharapova could have won both of those events if Li had not crossed her path, and instead of having four majors in her esteemed collection Maria’s total today would be six. Sharapova is a formidable big occasion player, a champion through and through, a woman who knows how to comfortably navigate her way around the latter stages of prestigious events.

Altogether, Sharapova had beaten Li Na in 8 of 13 previous head-to-head collisions, but the fact remains that she lost to the highly appealing Chinese competitor four times in a row at one stage from the middle of 2009 through the end of 2011. Li captured each of those encounters in straight sets, prevailing twice on grass, once on hard courts, and once on clay. Coming into their battle on the indoor clay of Stuttgart, Sharapova had every reason to be deeply concerned about her chances. Not only had Sharapova been enormously taxed physically by her three previous matches, but Li Na had blitzed her way into the final round without the loss of a set. Moreover, Li is an accomplished big match player in her own right, and she is not No. 5 in the world of women’s tennis by accident. Not only did she win the French Open in 2011, but she has been to the finals twice at the Australian Open. She seldom seems intimidated by the other top players; to the contrary, Li relishes the chance to demonstrate her capacity to play top of the line tennis in front of galleries who unabashedly celebrate her talent everywhere she goes.

But from the outset of this final, Sharapova seemed to be controlling the tactical and technical agenda. She was dictating the flow of the match to a large degree, serving with extraordinary power and uncanny accuracy, drilling her returns with immense power and depth, keeping Li at bay from the backcourt. Not only was Sharapova the superior offensive player, but she defended with surprising effectiveness, particularly off her backhand side. Sharapova released her best tennis of the week in the final, smothering Li with the pace, depth and supreme precision of her shots off both sides.

Clearly, Sharapova wanted to establish her authority right out of the gates, and she did just that. After Li took a 40-15 lead in the opening game of the match, Sharapova made a couple of first rate returns and got back to deuce. She advanced to break point, but Li erased that opportunity with a well-executed forehand down the line directed behind Sharapova, forcing the Russian into an error off the backhand. But Sharapova quickly garnered a second break point, and did not waste it. On the eleventh stroke of a sparkling exchange, Sharapova drove a backhand down the line winner into the clear. She held at love for 2-0, releasing an ace and two unstoppable serves in that game. Li held at 15 for 1-2 with a trademark forehand inside-out winner.

Yet Sharapova was unrelenting, sharp and purposeful, bold but not reckless. She was pushed to deuce in the fourth game but dealt with that situation adeptly. Sharapova sent an impeccably located first serve down the T to set up an inside-out backhand winner. At game point, Sharapova out-dueled Li forehand to forehand to draw an error. The Russian moved ahead 3-1. Li established a 30-15 lead in the fifth game with an ace down the T, but Sharapova was undaunted. She angled a low backhand acutely crosscourt with marvelous control to elicit an error from Li. Li then double faulted for 30-40, and came out second best in another forehand to forehand rally. Sharapova had opened up a 4-1 lead, breaking serve for the second time and providing a useful cushion for herself.

That cushion proved to be significant. Serving at 4-1, 15-15, Sharapova double faulted into the net, and Li made her move. Li rolled a forehand sharply crosscourt to place Sharapova in an awkward bind. Sharapova missed a forehand up the line. Although Sharapova served an ace down the T to reach 30-40, she was unable to cast away a second break point. Li drove a solid backhand down the line to provoke Sharapova into an errant forehand to break serve. In the following game, Sharapova’s returns remained excellent, but Li fought off three break points (two with service winners) in a four deuce game.

Sharapova remained in the lead, but the score in her favor now stood at 4-3. Sharapova was up 40-30 in the eighth game but double faulted. That did not diminish her confidence. She took the next point and then played a superb strategic point, sending a low, short backhand crosscourt to set up a forehand winner down the line. Sharapova had halted Li’s momentum, moving to 5-3. Li held at 30 in the ninth game but Sharapova was at her concentrated best as she served out the set in the tenth game. She put three out of four first serves in and held at love. In the end, Sharapova won the set 6-4, fending off Li’s spirited stand in the middle.

But Li played with conviction and deep determination in the first half of the second set. Both players tenaciously held serve over the first six games. Li conceded only one point in her first two service games and then prevailed from deuce in her third. But Sharapova matched her rival in that department. She, too, lost only one point in her first two service games, and then prevented Li from altering the complexion of the match in the crucial sixth game. Serving at 2-3, 30-30, Sharapova correctly sensed the importance of the moment. In a hotly contested, 19 stroke rally, Sharapova shifted boldly from defense to offense, unleashing a scintillating forehand down the line winner. At 40-30, she produced a timely service winner down the T. Sharapova had survived a potential crisis, reaching 3-3 with the right ingredients.

Sharapova believed this match was now on her racket, in her hands, with no reservations. Serving at 3-3, Li got to 40-30 but Sharapova’s backhand return was hit with too much depth and pace for Li to handle. Another scorching return from Sharapova took her to break point. It was no ordinary break point, not in the least. Sharapova was in defensive territory as she chased a ball hit hard to her backhand side. She went with one of her infrequent yet remarkable left-handed forehands rather than trying to hit a backhand at full stretch. Somehow she sent that difficult that shot back into play down the line. Li approached off that short ball, going crosscourt off the forehand. But Sharapova easily anticipated that shot, and released a terrific running forehand passing shot up the line. Li missed a tough, low backhand volley wide.

Sharapova had the break for 4-3, and soon held at 15 for 5-3 without hesitation. Now Li was serving to stay in the match. At 15-0, Li sent a kicker wide to the Sharapova backhand, but the Russian’s stretch return was a winner. Li seemed shaken by that development, double faulting to make it 15-30 before producing a service winner for 30-30. Then both players were fully engaged in a high quality rally, but once more Sharapova had the goods. She cracked a forehand down the line for a clean winner, reaching match point in the process. Li had no answers left. She double faulted at match point down.

Sharapova was victorious 6-4, 6-3. She thus captured her 29th career singles title. She stands currently at No. 2 in the world behind Serena Williams. These days, she is a pillar of consistency. I watched Sharapova take her first major at Wimbledon in 2004, when she toppled Serena in a dazzling, final round performance. I saw her cut down the estimable Justine Henin to win the 2006 U.S. Open with another outstanding display of power mixed with panache. I was highly impressed by her 2008 Australian Open triumph, which featured some of the finest sustained serving of her career. Sharapova’s victory at the French Open in 2012 was another testament to her enduring greatness. But I believe she is a better player now than she has ever been before, more thoughtful and flexible, much improved on defense, a savvy competitor who understands how to control her surroundings and realizes what it takes to win against a breed of female athletes who have taken the sport to an unprecedented physical level.

Will Sharapova defend her French Open crown in June? That will be a very difficult task, although I would not put it past her. But of this much I am almost certain: this extraordinary woman will win a few more majors before she permanently puts down the racket and moves on to other endeavors.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.