ROME, Italy - With some incredible fight to back up her incredible power game, Maria Sharapova came back from the brink of defeat to beat Li Na in the final of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, saving match point and even weathering a two hour rain delay before the third set tie-break to conquer the Eternal City.
The No.8-seeded Li hadn't won a WTA title since becoming Asia's first Grand Slam champion at the French Open almost a year ago, and that hunger was evident as she built a 64 40 lead. Never one to back down, Sharapova dug deep and won eight games in a row from there, taking the second set and going ahead 2-0 in the third. She eventually built a 4-1, two-break lead in the third.
Li regrouped from the mid-match collapse and won four games in a row, getting both breaks back to get the match back on serve. She even got to match point with Sharapova serving 5-6, ad-out - but she didn't convert and Sharapova held, and just minutes later the skies opened, suspending play for over two hours.
"I don't mind rain - actually I like it," Sharapova said. "One time it helped me a lot, when I won Wimbledon. In the semifinals it started raining when I was down and out against Lindsay Davenport. I was pretty much booking my ticket back home. But when we came back I managed to turn it around.
"Today the court was wet and slippery when we came back, but the umpire told us it was our decision, and both of us wanted to keep going."
Upon resumption it was Sharapova who came out faster, winning the first three points of the tie-break - and although Li got back on track, catching up to 4-4 and 5-5, one last burst gave the No.2-seeded Sharapova a 46 64 76(5) win.
"Obviously it's tough to rest for two hours and then play again, but I still have many positive things from this match," Li said. "Playing a tough match like that showed me I'm strong, and physically I felt great. I can take a lot of positive things away from this week and I think I'm ready for the French Open.
"We both had our chances today, but in the end she was just better."
"This is a great win for me going into Roland Garros," Sharapova said. "I know the level she played there last year and the level she can play on clay, the way she defends and moves around and gets herself back into position, she's just a great player on any surface really. So this gives me a lot of confidence.
"It will be nice to have a week off now, after playing three tournaments in the last four weeks. I'll have to time to recover, mentally and physically."
Sharapova collected her second WTA title of the year, having won another Premier clay court event in Stuttgart last month, and it was the 26th WTA title of her career (the only active players with more WTA titles are Venus Williams with 43 and Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, who both have 41).
This was also Sharapova's first time successfully defending a WTA clay court title, and fourth overall - she won back-to-back titles at Tokyo [Japan Open] in 2003 and 2004, Birmingham in 2004 and 2005 and San Diego in 2006 and 2007.
Li may not have won a WTA title since last year's French Open, but she has had some very strong results this year: finals at Premier-level events in Sydney and Rome and another four quarterfinals, all at Premier-level events too - Indian Wells, Miami, Stuttgart and Madrid. She is 5-7 in her career in WTA finals.