ROME, Italy - Maria Sharapova came through the longest WTA match on clay this season on Friday, fending off reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko to win 6-7(6), 6-4, 7-5 in 3 hours and 11 minutes in the Internazionali BNL d'Italia quarterfinals. The win was Sharapova's first over a Top 10 opponent in 2018, her third three-set win of the week in Rome, and sets up a big showdown against No.1 Simona Halep in Saturday's semifinals.
After kickstarting her season with a strong run to the quarterfinals of the Mutua Madrid Open last week, the three-time Rome champion is understandably pleased with the progress she's made on the match court since the tour turned to clay.
"I think looking back to the last few weeks kind of where I started in Stuttgart," Sharapova told reporters after the win, "to having a tough three-set match loss there in the first round, to coming to Madrid to not physically pushing through that last match that I lost, and coming here and having some very physical tough first couple of matches and then going deep in the third today and following through, I think that's the type of progression that I want to see for myself."
"I put myself in that position and then see where I can go. And I felt like today was just a step in the right direction of mentally getting through, of being there, of challenging her, no matter what the level was at certain parts of the match."
Sharapova's tenacity began to take hold of the match late in the first set. The Russian struggled with Ostapenko's depth and pace early, falling behind 2-5, before the Latvian let up by just a hair, and Sharapova slowly began to turn the match back on level terms. She narrowly lost the opening set but continued to pressure Ostapenko through the remainder of the match until she finally broke for the win. After squandering two match points in Ostapenko's previous game at 4-5, Sharapova rebounded to get the final break in the end.
"I found a way to get through a fairly challenging time of my career and I appreciate this chapter of my career so much more because I still have a lot of passion for what I do," Sharapova said.
"I've had a very tough few months already. And to come through that... You asked me why I was smiling at the end of a match: if you're not smiling after all the crap that you're able to go through, and you keep pushing yourself and you keep delivering, and you get moments like that, where you have two match points and you hit them into the bottom of the net, and then you create more opportunities and then you get it done? Yeah, I'm gonna smile (laughs).
"I realize these are special moments and I'm closer to the end of my career than I am at the beginning and I appreciate this chapter. I don't know how it's going to end, but I hope it's on my terms."
Looking ahead to her upcoming semifinal against a familiar foe in Halep, Sharapova had nothing but respect for the World No.1. The two faced off twice last season, with Sharapova edging Halep in the first round of the US Open and Halep getting her revenge at the China Open last fall en route to claiming the No.1 ranking.
"It's a tough matchup, no matter what part of the tournament you play her at," Sharapova said. "I think she's been one of the most consistently competitive, great results in the last few years. She's No. 1 in the world right now and that speaks for itself in terms of what kind of player she is and has been for a while.
"Of course, that's challenging deep into an event, particularly when I've already had four matches, very long matches. She's had a little less play time." Indeed, Sharapova has played 11 sets to get to the final. Halep, who earned an opening round bye and a walkover in the Round of 16 from Madison Keys, has played four sets.
"I feel like I've been here many years," Sharapova said, when asked about being one of the older players in the field these days. "And a part of me loves that feeling. I know there's another life apart from this career, this amazing career that I have that I certainly want to explore and know more of. But until then, I love what I do.
"I have to keep being youthful, I have to keep feeling young. Because there are a lot of young players coming up that have a lot of drive and energy. And ultimately, they're going to take your place. That's not a secret. But until then, you know, you still want to leave your mark.
More from Sharapova's post-match press conference:
On whether the days of teenage Slam champions is over:
"I mean, based on facts maybe we can say, yes, it's happened a long time ago. But, I would love to see it again. I think there's a new energy and a new fresh breath of air when that happens. Particularly when someone's not expected to win and finds a way. But, I would love to see that again. I think it adds another fun element to the sport."
On the evolution of her clay game:
"I think a lot of it has to do with stubbornness. And I don't say 'stubbornness' is like always a good quality. 'Cause it sometimes leads you to do terrible things.
"But, I was stubborn enough to know that maybe I wasn't the best in having variety. I wasn't the strongest. I wasn't the fastest. But I found a way to come through.
"I watched a lot of commentating on TV, particularly when I was younger, like a young teenager. Where after each French Open champion won, Justine Henin or Svetlana Kuznetsova, and a commentator would say, this is how it's done. You know, you got to get the loopy ball then you gotta slice back and then you gotta play defense. I was like, well, I don't have that. Then I'm going to do everything I can and find my own weapons and make them better and accommodate them for this surface.
"And I think that I did. I got better in every little aspect on the court. And maybe it was physically challenging for me. I was tall, I was lanky, I wasn't coordinated. I think all those three things apply to this day. But I just know how to handle it better.
On coach Thomas Hogstedt:
"I think we've also learned a lot about each other. I think in the past the personality aspect was something a little difficult, something I talked about in my book. But I think you learn and you grow. And I think the effort that he's been able to bring every single day, the belief that he has in me as a player, as a person, is tremendous. And someone that can bring that every day, that's great momentum to have."