Maria licks Li Na in Stuttgart final

(Thanks to sportinglife.com)

(Thanks to sportinglife.com)

No, Maria is not doing an impression of the infamous Titanic scene in the above photo. She had, though, just done a quite fine impression of a powerful machine cruising through a sea of red clay. But, unlike the case of the ill-fated Titanic, the iceberg in Maria’s way, Li Na, melted when it looked like a collision might be on the cards.

Maria Sharapova’s Winsletesque pose was courtesy of her beating Li Na 6-4, 6-3 to defend her Stuttgart title. At the venue where she began her all-conquering 2012 clay run, she handily beat the woman who had put an end to her dominating display in Melbourne three months back.

It was a much anticipated encounter. Maria leads the head to head 8-5 and it is hard to predict who will win when these two meet. Both mistresses in the art of controlled aggression, these two women have each won the French Open (Li in ’11, Maria in ’12) and are as well-armed as each other on the Clay. The winner of their matches is usually the one who can keep the errors down and keep calm until the opening for a winner arises.

It was Maria who got a grip on matters early on, breaking Li in the second game. The Russian’s return of serve had improved significantly since her three set opening round match against Safarova. And so had the rest of her game, a game which was rusty and erroneous in her first three rounds, all going three sets and all won as much due to her opponent’s flaws as to her strengths. But today, things were different. One, this was the final and Maria is a pro when it comes to the title decider, winning twenty-eight titles in her career. And two, this was Ni La, a woman, who like her, can blow you away on her day, and who had been blowing out her opponents in straights all week while Maria had been fighting to edge past them. Against Li Na, she had to pull ahead quick or else. A task she achieved, breaking again at 3-1.

The Chinese broke back at 1-4 and began to control her fair share of points too. But Maria held firm. The scars of that Australian Open loss seemed to still need a little tending to. The prospect of revenge ahead, Maria worked hard, moving Li Na side to side and back from the baseline until the open court invited her ground stroke winners. The Russian held on to her momentum and held serve to close out the set.

In the second set, matters were going with serve until 3-3, when Li Na, who since breaking back in the first set had been playing as well as Maria, made a tactical error at the net that would prove to be decisive. Break point down, Li Na had constructed the point well enough to enable her to come to the net and put away a winner. But Li did not hit an angled volley deep to the backhand side, but volleyed instead to the Maria Sharapova forehand. The Chinese could only look on as Maria ran right into it and belted a forehand up the line which Ni La could only volley into the doubles lines. That gave Maria the break and effectively the match. As strong a front runner as anyone on the WTA, Maria held her serve with conviction to lead 5-3.

A game away from the title, Maria cranked up the intensity, and the noise level, and reached break point, and more crucially, Championship point. Another Porshe was just one forehand down the line away. But she would not even have to strike the ball. A Li Na double-fault and the title and a blue shiny Porsche was Maria’s.

While was not anywhere near the final it could have been, such as the drama we were treated to at last year’s Italian Open final, it did have some saving graces. Maria had been too consistent and too strong this time and that consistency and strength is enjoyable to watch. Li Na played well at times, too but she made crucial errors on the wrong points while her opponent did not repay in kind as she had done that day in Rome. Instead of the all action blockbuster we got that day, we witnessed a fine demonstration of how a big-hitter can exploit the slower Clay surface to get the most out of their game using controlled and smart aggression. It was a performance by Maria that also served to remind the tour who the form player on the red stuff has been the last couple of years and that if her status is going to be demoted then they are going to have to turn up ready to play in the finals, as solid as icebergs, ready to puncture what is as strong and steady a cruiser as it has ever been.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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