ROME, Italy - Two of the WTA's biggest global stars, Maria Sharapova and Li Na, will meet in the final of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, one hoping to defend her title and the other hoping for her first title in almost a year.
The No.8-seeded Li was the first to advance to the final, though maybe not in the way she wanted - No.9 seed Serena Williams, who was riding a 17-match clay court winning streak, had to pull out before their match with a back injury.
"I had some problems with my lower back earlier in the week - it was feeling a little stiff, and I don't think it's the right moment to force it," Williams told reporters at her press conference. "It's just life. I've been playing a lot, and my body is just getting used to playing a lot of matches again, that's all.
"I don't have any plans the next day, or the next couple of days, because my plans were to play tennis. I love Rome, and I might stay today or tomorrow."
Li was sympathetic. "Of course I'm happy to be in the final, but I knew she was having some problems," she said. "It's very bad luck for her. I hope she can get healthy again in time for the French Open and come back to the court.
"It's disappointing, because when I was warming up today I was just thinking, 'I have a chance to play against the best player in the world.'"
Li will be after her first WTA title since winning her first Grand Slam title at the French Open last year. She has a 5-6 career record in WTA finals.
The No.2-seeded Sharapova followed Li into the final with a 63 64 win over No.12 seed Angelique Kerber, avenging a loss in the pair's last meeting, in the quarterfinals of Paris in February - which was Kerber's first Top 10 win.
"I was a little bit tired from my match with Petra last night, but that's not an excuse why I lost - Maria played very well today," Kerber said. "I tried the best I could, but she was playing very well. She was the better player today."
Sharapova is going for her second WTA title of the year, having already won another Premier-level clay court event in Stuttgart. And having won Rome last year, she will try to defend a WTA title for the fourth time in her career, and the first time at a clay court event (her first three came at Tokyo [Japan Open] in 2003-2004, Birmingham in 2004-2005 and San Diego in 2006-2007).
"Coming back to a place where you have accomplished so much, and to be in a position to regain that success, makes me very happy," Sharapova said. "It was a tough match today and I'm looking forward to another tough one tomorrow."
Sharapova has an impressive 25-16 career record in WTA finals.
It was still a fantastic week for Kerber, her run to the semifinals meaning she will now move to No.10 - the seventh German player ever to break the Top 10.
"It's a great feeling to be a Top 10 player, but nothing will change for me," Kerber said. "I'll keep working hard and try to give my best all the time, just try to win matches of course. At Roland Garros I'll just play round by round and not focus on being No.10, because every player is a good player. You have to beat everybody - it doesn't matter if they're No.1 in the world or No.100."
Sharapova leads Li in their head-to-head series, 6-4, but it's very streaky. Sharapova won their first five matches in a row, followed by Li winning four matches in a row - and in their 10th meeting, their only 2012 meeting, it was Sharapova who won handily in the quarterfinals of Miami in March, 63 60.
"Maria has been playing many matches on the clay so she knows how to use it," Li said. "I'm really looking forward to the final. It's going to be tough."
"I've had tough times against her," Sharapova said. "I won the last time in Miami, but I had lost a couple in a row before that, and was happy to turn things around. Tomorrow is a new match - I hope to play like I did in Miami."