Ana Ivanovic never went away.
The Serb got tight, got sick, blew a huge lead and then saved two match points, but she never stopped fighting, never stopped believing.
In an incredible match of massive momentum swings, Ivanovic finally prevailed, 6-2, 5-7, 7-5 in one of the most thrilling, drama-filled matches either tour has seen this year.
The first stanza of the match featured a red-hot Ivanovic building a 6-2, 4-0 lead; crushing 16 winners to eight including five spectacular return winners. It was her forehand that did most of the damage, hitting six winners (four groundstroke / two return) while only committing seven total errors (five groundstroke / two return). It was efficient and dominant from all parts of the baseline, with three of the four winners coming as run-around forehands struck from the ad court.
By contrast, Sharapova's forehand was misfiring, accumulating six winners (four groundstroke / two return) but committing 20 errors (11 groundstroke / nine return). At this halfway stage, the match totally belonged to Ivanovic and the one-sided forehand numbers had most to do with it.
Then the Serb started thinking about the lead, the score, and the finish line only two games away, and that's when things got completely sideways.
"I really got a little tight," Ivanovic said. "I wasn't moving my feet forward enough and played a little passive. But she's a champion and was fighting so well."
Once a player's mind wonders from the specifics of the game plan to the hope of winning, then things can flip in an instant. Ivanovic won 13 of the 18 points to start the second set but Sharapova won 12 of the last 14 to level the match at a set all.
Sharapova came roaring back and won five straight games from 5-2 down in the second set to win it, 7-5. It was a stunning turn of events that goes to show you should never think about winning - just the process of achieving it - at all levels of the game.
Ivanovic became nauseous in the second game of the deciding set and had a trainer come to the court, but she quickly overcame the sickness to battle though an amazing third set. Three times she found herself down a break, at 2-1, 3-2 and 5-4, and saved a pair of match points with a gutsy run-around forehand winner down the line and forcing a Sharapova forehand long.
It was then time for Sharapova to feel the weight of the occasion as she double faulted twice in a row at deuce, which leveled the match at 5-5. Ivanovic saved another break point at 5-5, 30-40, when Sharapova netted a backhand, and her positive body language and the lesson learned to keep her head in the moment proved decisive to victory.
A key battleground for Ivanovic was pressuring Sharapova's second serve, where the Russian only won 37% (14/38) of points. Seven of her nine double faults came in the third set, with the pressure ramped sky high. SAP analytics showed Sharapova directed all her second serves, except one in the ad court, to Ivanovic's backhand, trying to stay away from the more threatening forehand return. Ivanovic contacted 25% of her first serve returns inside the baseline and 54% of second serve returns, averaging 66 mph returning first serves and 69 mph returning second serves - with the fastest being a bruising 89-mph return.
Sharapova was constantly trying to match up backhand-to-backhand, directing 69% of total groundstrokes to the ad court, while Ivanovic played 56% through the ad court, trying to get her forehand more involved in the points.
Craig O'Shannessy (@BrainGameTennis) is the leading analyst for wtatennis.com throughout the 2014 season, utilizing SAP Data & Insights to uncover the patterns and percentages that dominate the game. Visit Craig's website at www.braingametennis.com for more expert strategy analysis.