Welcome back to Clay Chronicles, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the clay seasons of the past five years. After recapping Charleston's classics, Stuttgart's standards, Madrid’s magic moments, our retrospective heads to the Eternal City to recount some of the best matches from the recent editions of the Internazionale BNL d’Italia. Kicking things off is a classic Maria Sharapova comeback to defeat Carla Suarez Navarro in the 2015 final.
HOW THEY GOT THERE: Coming into the 2015 Internazionale d’Italia, it had been a long time since anyone had described Maria Sharapova’s clay court tennis as a “cow on ice”. The Russian had gotten over her early aversion to the red dirt and rapidly evolved into one of the WTA’s top contenders on the surface.
Sharapova's first taste of success in Rome came in the form of back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012 - the latter serving as a springboard for her victory at Roland Garros, which saw Sharapova complete the career Grand Slam.
She then surprised even herself when she doubled her Parisian trophy count in 2014, making Roland Garros the only Grand Slam that Sharapova has won twice.
"If somebody had told me ... at some stage in my career, that I'd have more Roland Garros titles than any other Grand Slam, I'd probably go get drunk," Sharapova laughed in Paris after the 2014 final. "Or tell them to get drunk. One or the other."
But the road to get there wasn’t easy, with the Russian player struggling with a recurring shoulder injury, which had required surgery in 2008.
After starting the year ranked World No.2 and with a run to the Australian Open final, Sharapova soon found her queen of clay status under siege. The three-time defending Stuttgart champion suffered her first loss at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, falling in the first round to eventual champion Angelique Kerber. In Madrid, Sharapova was again unable to defend her title, reaching the semifinals before losing out to Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Sharapova arrived in Rome on a mission, and she was soon back to her winning ways, defeating Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals, taking down rising star Daria Gavrilova in the semifinals and booking a spot in the final against Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro.
WHAT HAPPENED: No.10 seed Suarez Navarro - who had reached the Miami Open final earlier in the year - had completed a semifinal stunner when she took down Simona Halep, the No.2 seed in the previous round. She came into the clash against Sharapova with a lot of tennis under her belt, having played three three-setters and scored wins over World No.6 Eugenie Bouchard and No.4 seed Petra Kvitova along the way.
Under the sweltering heat in Rome, it was the Spaniard who got off to a strong start. Her variety of spins, slices and topspin shots kept Sharapova struggling - along with Suarez Navarro’s signature one-handed backhand, which was difficult to read. Suarez Navarro broke midway through the opening set, and continued to pressure Sharapova as she closed it out, 6-4.
The pair were deadlocked and on serve in the tight second set, until Suarez Navarro blinked first. Sharapova raised her level and finally broke through for a 5-3 lead, stepping into the court to attack the Spaniard’s serve and find angles. Suarez Navarro broke back to even the score at 5-5, but Sharapova continued to power through her flat groundstrokes to take the last eight points in a row and win the set 7-5.
The No.3 seed was firmly in control as the match went into the decider, and reeled off the last six games consecutively against a visibly fatigued Suarez Navarro. After two and a half hours, Sharapova claimed the victory, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.
WHAT THEY SAID: After securing her third title in Rome - and a vital clay victory ahead of her upcoming Roland Garros title defense - Sharapova was all smiles during the trophy presentation.
"It's always a special victory," Sharapova said. "It isn't my first time [winning here], but when I'm able to hold the trophy again, it brings back memories of winning it the first time."
She added, "I remember coming to Italy as a little girl, and this was one of the tournaments I dreamed of playing. Now to win it for a third time is very special."
Her opponent Suarez Navarro, who was set to rise to World No.8, had nothing but praise for the five-time Grand Slam champion.
“It was a really close match, I know I need to start really good,” she said. “But I feel tired. I’ve been fighting all the time. At the end of the second set Maria played more aggressive. I think that was the key. I said I was a little bit tired but I think I played good.”
“Maria plays really good not only on clay but on hard courts for sure, she plays really aggressive on hard court, she has good points, winners, stays in the match all the time,” she added. “She is really good in her mind and she played really aggressive.”
WHAT IT MEANT: For Sharapova, her Roman hat-trick was more than just her 35th career title - and her 11th on clay. It propelled her back to World No.2, leapfrogging Simona Halep in the ongoing rankings tug-of-war.
Despite the added boost in confidence, Sharapova ultimately did not defend her Roland Garros title, though she went all the way to the fourth round in an eight-match winning streak. Sharapova fell to a rising Lucie Safarova, the surprise 2015 finalist, in straight sets, 7-6(3), 6-4.
Sharapova still finished with an impressive win-loss record on clay in 2015, winning 12 of her 15 contested matches on the surface.
The Russian player suffered another injury setback after Wimbledon, and didn’t compete again until the Asian Swing. She finished her season with a strong run to the semifinals at the WTA Finals in Singapore, and with a Fed Cup final heartbreaker that saw Russia fall 2-3 to the Czech Republic - with both points coming from Sharapova’s wins.