STUTTGART, Germany - Last year she dominated the clay court season and now she's got this year's stretch on the surface off to a winning start too - Maria Sharapova came out on top in the final of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix on Sunday, out-hitting Li Na in a very competitive straight-setter, 64 63.
The No.1-seeded Sharapova was pushed to three sets in all three of her previous rounds this week, but against the No.2-seeded Li she was never really behind, bursting out to a 4-1 double break lead in the first set and breaking away mid-way through the second set with four straight games to win in straight sets. It was a far cry from their last meeting at the Australian Open, which Li won, 62 62.
"She was the second seed and someone who I had lost to the last time we played, and obviously she was fresher than me going into the final, so I knew it would be the toughest match of the tournament," Sharapova said. "I really tried to do the right things from the beginning to the end and not have a letdown like I did in the other matches - there were some struggles in those. But I kept giving myself chances to go to the next round, and I think I really played my best tennis of the week today.
"No matter how difficult those other matches were or how tired I was, I stepped it up today."
Sharapova improved to 9-5 head-to-head against Li with the win - she was asked about the Chinese.
"We have faced each other so many times so there are really no secrets between us in our games," Sharapova said. "It's not really about one thing we do well or don't do well, you have to do a lot of things well on a consistent basis. It's really about who goes out and executes best on the day."
Sharapova not only collected her 29th WTA title, she extended her clay court winning streak to 16 matches in a row, a stretch that includes the Rome and French Open titles from last year; she also defended a WTA title for the fifth time in her career, having done it at Tokyo [Japan Open] (2003 and 2004), Birmingham (2004 and 2005), San Diego (2006 and 2007) and Rome (2011 and 2012).
Li may have fallen to 7-10 in her career in WTA finals but she and Sharapova are really stepping forward as two of the players to beat this year - Sharapova is now 22-3 on the season, Li 20-4.
"You never know what will happen when we play, it's always 50/50, but today she was the better one," Li said. "Of course it's sad when you lose in the final, but looking back at the whole week, it was the first clay court tournament of the year for me, so I'm happy to have reached the final here."