Nothing lasts forever, not even in the Eternal City, but the current emperor and empress of Rome hope to extend their reigns for another year. If they can complete title defenses, both Sharapova and Djokovic would position themselves promisingly for a historic accomplishment in three weeks, when they hope to seize what now belongs to their opponents.
Sharapova vs. Li: A sparkling 27-2 outside finals this year, including a perfect record in semifinals, the Russian juggernaut has plowed through draw after draw on three continents and two surfaces. Not usually known for her consistency, Sharapova has developed into one of the most dependable competitors in an increasingly steady WTA. The only stain on her outstanding 2012 campaign consists of her struggles in finals early this season, of which she lost three at prestigious hard-court tournaments to leading rivals Azarenka and Radwanska. But Sharapova halted that skid in emphatic fashion when she overwhelmed the top-ranked Azarenka in the Stuttgart final at her first clay tournament of the year. Creating yet another opportunity for herself at a marquee event, she has not lost a set in the Foro Italico while improving her 2012 record against fellow major champions to a commanding 8-2, having defeated six different players in that category.
Among those six foes is Sharapova’s opponent in the final, who advanced more quietly through the draw without encountering any challenger more imposing than Cibulkova. The recipient of a semifinal walkover from Serena, Li Na has found the ideal moment to reach her second final of the season as her title defense in Paris looms barely a week ahead. Colliding for the eleventh time, the three-time major titlist and the reigning Roland Garros champion have accumulated one of the stranger shared histories of two leading ladies. After Sharapova won their first nine sets and first five clashes overall, the momentum shifted abruptly when Li reeled off four consecutive victories from 2009-11. Deeply vexed by this development, no doubt, the statuesque Russian thrashed China’s “Golden Flower” in a Miami quarterfinal this year that reeked of retribution. Nevertheless, Li won both their only previous final and arguably their most significant meeting, a Roland Garros semifinal last year. Through two tight sets, the future champion not only contained Sharapova’s power but became one of very few players to win the mental battle from her. Memories of that eventful afternoon will hover in the minds of both women as they meet again on red clay, motivating one of them and inspiring the other with confidence.
Entering their Miami encounter with a clear set of tactics, Sharapova relentlessly hammered away at Li’s forehand rather than engaging in the backhand rallies that showcase both of their strengths. After just a few games, the Chinese star began to hemorrhage errors from the less consistent of her groundstrokes in a flood that merely accelerated as the rout unfolded. The world #2 should bring a similar plan to this next meeting until Li proves that she can withstand this pressure. For her part, Li will recall that her aggressive return game has depleted Sharapova’s confidence in her serve before, dulling a formidable weapon. Like Ivanovic and Venus, the Roland Garros champion should aim to test a stroke that the Russian has used smartly this week to open the court. If Li cannot protect her own serve better than she could in Miami, though, boldness in return games will not intimidate an opponent who knows that she can regain breaks. Perhaps more intimidating is her ability to return shots from defensive positions with exceptional depth, aided by a compact swing and efficient footwork. Those strengths allow her to cling near the baseline, forcing opponents to hit around her rather than through her. A brilliantly imaginative shot-maker, Sharapova will need to drag Li out of position by creating unexpected angles and perhaps hitting behind her at times.
Preferring hard courts and grass to clay for much of her career, Li has adapted her game to the terre battue by settling into a counterpunching style there and quelling her instincts for flamboyant shot-making. Rather than adapting to clay, Sharapova has launched a campaign to conquer it that already has met with stirring success, for she seeks her third title in her last four red clay tournaments and her nineteenth victory in her last twenty matches on the surface. To rule the Eternal City again, however, she must dispatch the rival responsible for her only setback during that span.
Djokovic vs. Nadal: In search of a third consecutive victory over a top-five rival, the world #1 would deliver a statement worthy of his 2011 surge if he defends this title. Unlike last year, Djokovic has not looked impeccable from the first ball onwards but has grown more ominous as the tournament has advanced. Awkward with his footwork and subdued in his body language against Monaco, he shifted into a more positive mood against Tsonga before soaring into familiarly flowing form against Federer and celebrating his latest victory over the Swiss with a signature howl. Somewhat sharper than Nadal on Saturday overall, Djokovic suffocated the Madrid champion by redirecting the ball smoothly and dominating behind his first serve. In fact, he lost only one first-serve point in his semifinal until he failed to serve for the match, the sole wobble of his evening. Soon tottering within two points of a third set, Djokovic rebounded courageously to win every point on his serve during the tiebreak.
Twice within two points of losing a set to Ferrer, Nadal survived his compatriot’s spirited resistance for the second time this month and looked more commanding than he had in Barcelona. Perhaps even more impressive than in Monte Carlo, Rafa has lost his serve just twice throughout the tournament. Erasing nine of ten break points in his semifinal, he could blunt Djokovic’s legendary return if he continues to strike this occasional weakness of his so assertively. Also explosive this week was Nadal’s inside-out forehand, with which he scarred lines and corners when the first set hung in the balance on Saturday. His exceptional precision with that shot could allow him to take control of rallies before the Serb finds a way to expose his backhand, still a less formidable weapon. If he can stay as committed to aggression as he did against Ferrer, easier said than done, the Spaniard could turn the tables in rallies that Djokovic has become accustomed to dictating. By contrast, the world #1 may deploy a strategy similar to his fellow defending champion. Striking cross-court forehands into his opponent’s weaker wing has proved a reliable way to stretch Nadal outside the sidelines and draw mid-court balls that the Serb can steer into the open court. At his best, Djokovic can make that strategy look remarkably easy and dependable, forcing his rival outside his comfort zone and into a frustrating search for solutions. To execute it throughout an entire match, however, requires a combination of steady focus, precise ball placement, and alertness to opportunity—challenging even for the world #1 to maintain.
In his last encounter with Nadal, Djokovic fell well short of such brilliance from the outset. Thoroughly stifled by the Spaniard at the latter’s citadel of Monte Carlo, he could attribute the end of his seven-match winning streak in their rivalry to the loss of his grandfather, which depleted him emotionally. The victory thus meant far more to the winner than did the defeat to the runner-up, freeing Nadal from his psychological burden against the Serb (in part, at least) without discouraging Djokovic unduly. With the #2 seed in Paris at stake, the reigning champion there will focus less upon that goal than upon the effort to recapture a crucial slice of territory from the man who swept all before him last year. As the possibility of meeting his nemesis at Roland Garros looms, Nadal’s spirits would rise if more evidence suggests that he can turn the tide. Conversely, Djokovic would feel supremely confident of completing his near-unique Nole Slam if he can grind the Spaniard into the dust once more. Rome thus will hint at whether Monte Carlo represented a turning point or an anomaly in the larger context of their rivalry, and it also will crown one of these gladiators the favorite for Paris.
To Paris we will move during the coming week, compiling a series of articles on the main contenders and dark horses in both fields.