Body & Sports

Sharapova, Djokovic claim 2015 Italian Open titles

Updated: 2015-05-18
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rome
In winning Rome, Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova head into Roland Garros with confidence on clay. (AP Photos)
 
Do tennis matches really have “turning points”? Can dozens of rallies be reduced to just one or two or three? It might seem like a hopelessly simplistic and clichéd concept, but watching Maria Sharapova’s 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 win over Carla Suarez Navarro in the Rome women's final on Sunday, it wasn’t hard to identify the moment when the match fell out of the Spaniard’s grasp and into the Russian’s.

“Point” is too specific in this case. The final turned over the course of one game, when Sharapova served at 3-3 in the second set. Until then, Suarez Navarro had been the better player. She had controlled the rallies with her sharply-angled ground strokes, more than once forcing a desperate Sharapova to reach for her backhand with only her left hand. As for her own game, Sharapova pressed from the ground and struggled with her serve. After carving out a brief early lead at 3-1 in the second, she gave the break right back with a double fault.

Now the second set was even at 3-3, and the famously resolute Sharapova was wobbling. On the first point, a Suarez Navarro forehand appeared to be heading out, but dropped into the corner for a surprise winner; Sharapova’s head dropped with it. Two points later, Sharapova was down 15-30; she missed her first serve, but somehow managed to put her second serve into the body of Suarez Navarro, who drilled her best shot, her backhand, into the net—with that shot, she had essentially helped Sharapova get back on her feet. Two more times in that game, once at 30-all and once on break point, Suarez Navarro made similar donations from her forehand side. Sharapova held, and went on to win 10 of the last 13 games.

Turning points, or turning games, typically happen when the underdog, who has started the day with little to lose, suddenly finds herself with something to lose. One set isn’t enough to make this happen, but a set and a break is. If you get that far ahead and you don’t end up winning, the assumption afterward will be that at some level you choked—or, at the very least, gave the win back to your opponent. Suarez Navarro, the underdog, with a chance to win the biggest title of her career at age 26, was one point away from going up a set and a break when her elbow turned to concrete.

After that, Sharapova had the advantage. While she didn’t break free and play her best tennis until she was racing down the homestretch, her superior power and court positioning gradually wore her weary opponent down. Suarez Navarro had played a long three-setter against Simona Halep the previous day, and it showed in the late stages of the final.

“It wasn’t easy to find a rhythm out there,” Sharapova said, “with the way she plays, and the wind. I really had to adjust. But I’m proud I was able to stay in there. I never felt I was playing very clean until the end of the third set.”

Sharapova committed 53 unforced errors and was just six of 14 on break points. She double faulted six times, but didn’t hit any during the second half of the match. Sharapova didn’t use her occasional secret weapon, the drop shot, as often as she had in the semifinals, but that may have been the smarter move. Suarez Navarro wasn't ready for the ones she did use.

“In the end, I was the fresher one, and the more aggressive one, so it’s all a positive," Sharapova said. "Today, I was feeling like if I could just hang in there and, doing the things that I’m doing, I can do that for over three hours. That really makes me happy that I’ve improved that.”

Over the course of the last month, Sharapova has worked herself into French Open condition. She has her first clay title of the year, and the 11th of her career, tying her with Serena Williams for the most among active women’s players. And she has now won 62 of her last 68 matches on the surface.

When Maria wins in Rome, how does she do in Paris? After her second title here, in 2012, she went on to win at Roland Garros. This year she’ll be seeded one spot behind Serena Williams, at No. 2. Sharapova says there’s no preparation for the French like playing long matches on clay, and she certainly did that today. But while she won this one, 53-error performances are probably not going to take her all the way in Paris. Not every match in which she falls behind is going to turn back in her direction.
 
Novak Djokovic’s 6-4, 6-3 win over Roger Federer in the men’s final was one-way traffic, with no turn-offs in sight. It has been a year filled with outstanding performances from the world No. 1—he’s now 35-2 for the season—but I thought this was the best of all of them. It was a Djokovic win that came with no hiccups, no letdowns, no vented rage, no head-scratching double faults, and no quivering hands on the water bottle at the changeover. Even down the stretch, as he worked to hold onto his lead, Djokovic showed nary a nerve nor a shade of self-doubt in putting away the man who has been the closest thing he has to a rival in 2015.

Afterward, that man summed up his opponent’s day with precision. “Novak was rock solid today,” Federer said, “he played great throughout. He made very few unforced errors.”

Djokovic made 10 unforced errors, to be exact, compared to Federer’s 23. But Novak was more than merely consistent. With his serve and his return, he routinely got the jump on Federer with the first shot in a rally. Djokovic made 70 percent of his first serves and came up with two aces when he was down 0-30 at 4-4 in the first set. This time it was the Serb, rather than the Swiss, who used his serve to silence any rumblings of trouble. As for Djokovic’s return, he was seeing it well from start to finish; he batted it back deep, hooked it wide, and, in the final game of the first set, drilled a key crosscourt winner with it. If there was a stat that defined the match, it was points won on second serves: Djokovic won 63; Federer just 36.

“I’m playing with great joy and concentration and I hope to continue,” a predictably pleased Djokovic said. “This has been a very exciting week, and today was my best match.”

In hindsight, Djokovic’s win looks preordained, but the final was even through eight games. Rather than a turning point, it had what we might call a clarifying set of points at 4-4 and 5-4 in the first set.

At 4-4, Djokovic went down 30-40, and had to hit a second serve. Federer cracked a deep return, but Djokovic calmly reflexed it back. From there, he gradually brought the rally back to neutral, and then turned it in his direction with a series of heavy forehands that Federer finally couldn’t answer. Djokovic held.

In the next game, at 4-5, Federer hit big first serves only to see Djokovic reach out and send them back near the baseline. On another, Djokovic, smacked a forehand return for a winner. Down set point, Federer again had the edge in the rally, but Djokovic fought his way to neutral and won it on a Federer error. Djokovic’s confidence only grew from there.

When it was over, Federer said, rightly, that he could have played better, but that he was happy with his week in Rome. Like Andy Murray in Madrid, Federer has effectively thrown his hat in the Roland Garros ring. He's not the favorite, but if Djokovic and Nadal slip, he could be in a position to capitalize.

The only problem is that a Djokovic slip is looking increasingly unlikely. This was his fourth title in Rome, and his 22nd straight match win. He’s never been in a better position to win the French Open, and he knows it.

“I don’t think I need to gear up or do anything special in order to be successful at Roland Garros,” Djokovic said. “I just need to continue preparing myself for that event as I prepare for any other, try to keep the routine going and hope it will take me where I want to be.”

Even during this win streak, Djokovic has had his lapses in form and confidence. On Sunday, things were different. There were plenty of opportunities for his nerves to affect his play, but they never did. The long road to Paris has reached its final stop. There doesn’t seem to be any turning back for Djokovic now.
 
SOURCE: tennis.com
   
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