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Monday, May 16, 2011

Rome Reactions

With a hop, skip and a grunt, former no. 1 Maria Sharapova rocketed herself to the champion's podium at last week's Internazionali D'Italia tournament against 2010 French Open finalist, Sam Stosur. In a ruggedly dominant performance by the Russian star, Maria showed fans that she is still capable of winning big matches, and this one came on her least favorite surface. But the 6-2 6-4 win merely complimented a week of upsets, disappointments and solid play by many of the WTA's big names.

The most stunning turn of events in the Eternal City came in the semifinal when Sharapova took to the court against current top ranked woman, Caroline Wozniacki. The young Dane had trumped Sharapova in their last two meetings (most notably a 6-1 6-2 beat down at Indian Wells) and there is no doubt the memories sat vividly in both players' minds. Regardless, Sharapova went into the match swinging for lines as powerfully and confidently as ever, if not with a little more spin to boot.

After a 7-5 first set for the Russian, the match's momentum began to tilt in favor of Wozniacki. The relentless pusher seemed to have found her rhythm, finding an early break and cracking a blistering running forehand down the line for game point. The rare missile from Wozniacki left Maria flat on her face in the red clay (literally) as she slipped and all 6'2'' of her tumbled down. The self-proclaimed "cow on ice" looked bewildered as she rose to her feet, but as she toweled herself off, her face was the same stern and serious look opponents had come to fear. She had the attitude, but did she have the shots?

Sure enough the two women went to battle, but it was Sharapova who started to shine. With powerful forehands and a backhand reminiscent of her days at Wimbledon, Sharapova stopped Wozniacki in her tracks at 3-1, rattling off five straight games for a 7-5 6-3 win and a spot in the championship. Perhaps it was the the jumping forehand down the line return winner for the match, or the inspirational "come on!"s, but something about this Maria looked like a player with French potential. It's unlikely, and almost crazy, but with the WTA field so open, why not?

Wozniacki, who seems to have struggled since the start of the clay season,
will be looking to prove herself at the French Open.
Elsewhere in the bracket we saw promising runs and disappointing breakdowns that further jumble prospects for the upcoming Roland Garros. There's Jelena Jankovic who had Wozniacki on the ropes but more or less gifted away the third set. After an unexpected loss in Madrid, the Serbian came to Italy and gave the crowd some of the good stuff we used to love: beautiful slides, incredible defense and one of the best backhands down the line in all of women's tennis. But then, the big nothing.

We also have defending French Champion, Francesca Schiavone, and Australian Open runner-up Li Na, both of whom have left fans wanting recently. The Italian veteran is as fit as ever, but a knockout by American Bethanie Mattek-Sands in Madrid and a lackluster Paris rematch with Stosur were not the results she was looking for. Li Na played impressive clay matches in Rome before bowing out in the semifinals and, as always, will be a toss up for expectations at the Slam.

The biggest and most catastrophic news in Rome, however, came from The Brave One. Victoria Azarenka, the Belarusian whose insane power is drowned out only by her own screeching, was forced to retire against Sharapova in the quarterfinals due to an elbow injury. Having won the first set, Azarenka looked to be in control of the match, but with a quick jolt of her arm on a defensive slice, everything unraveled. At 2-0 down, Azarenka stood at the baseline with tears in her eyes between points, clearly trying to will her body to continue. She was smart, however, and bowed out before making the matter worse. This was her third injury retirement in 2011, following her six in 2010.

Azarenka has been one of the hottest players in the WTA along with title leaders, Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova, and word on her injury is yet to be released. She was a definite contender in Rome and looks to have possibilities in Paris... but will she be healthy?

It was a solid week at Rome this year despite the absence of a few big names (Zvonareva, Clijsters, the Williams sisters...). Many expected the "wide open" field to produce a new big champion, but the crown fell on the head of a former queen no one expected. Congratulations to Sharapova.

For more, check out's coverage.

-Kedzie Teller, ITB Senior Editor


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