By Tumaini Carayol
(April 28, 2013) STUTTGART – Maria Sharapova arrived in Stuttgart as merely the defeNding champion. One Porsche mega-deal later, the Russian had almost assumed home-crowd support as fans and staff alike cheered the Russian on passionately throughout the week.
After her perilous struggles in the rounds before, Sharapova saved her most impressive victory for last, showcasing a performance of the highest quality to refuse Li Na her title 6-4, 6-3. The Russian struck the ball cleanly and with precision, while her movement improved dramatically overnight as she closed out the match in two impressive sets.
“I definitely thought it would be the toughest match of the tournament because, you know, she’s the second seed and someone I lost to last time I played against her,” she said.
“Probably because I knew she’d be the freshest of both of us. I tried to do the right things from the beginning and not have a let-down like I did in the other matches. I’m extremely happy that I pulled through.”
Sharapova’s afternoon was most succinctly summed up by a break point in set two. Chasing from side to side, the Russian found herself on the back foot as Li attempted to dominate. Eventually she stretched for a last-ditch left-handed forehand which barely trickled over, but as the Chinese number one attempted to put away the weak reply, Sharapova had already begun sprinting back to her forehand side, into the open court. A stunning on-the-run forehand down the line passing shot followed as she wrestled the break from her opponent’s grasp and hammered the final nail into the coffin that held Li Na’s title hopes.
“I think the main thing (in the earlier rounds) is the way that I fought,” said Sharapova later. “The way I came back from being down from, you know winning the first set.
“Losing the second could have been tough and easy to let the third set go but I kept fighting to give myself a chance to get into the next round. And then I played my best tennis today. So no matter how difficult those matches were, no matter how tired I was.”
On the question of pressure after recording a breathtaking 20th straight victory on red clay, Sharapova showcased a relaxed outlook to her outstanding previous 12 months on the red dirt.
“It’s more exciting. I really feel like I deserve to be in that position where I’m considered one of favorites because I needed to work to be in this position for many years. I’ve worked on getting stronger. I’ve worked on getting patient. I’ve worked on getting my game to adapt a little more on clay. There’s a reason why I’ve got myself there. It didn’t take a day, it didn’t take months, it took many years.
It remains difficult to name the players who will figure as the top favorites for Roland Garros as the second Grand Slam draws ever-nearer, but if one thing is for sure, it’s that Sharapova will top them all.