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 Internazionali BNL d’Italia. For 2018, we showcase what would be the final match of the recently-retired Maria Sharapova's epic rivalry with Simona Halep, one that foreshadowed the latter's maiden major run at that year's French Open.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: The clay season was in full force and for top-ranked Simona Halep, it was her moment to right what had gone so wrong the year before. A breath away from her first Grand Slam title, the Romanian saw the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen snatched from her grasp and into the hands of a fearless Jelena Ostapenko, who slugged her way to a shocking victory.
In the face of bitter disappointment, Halep only improved in the year that followed, ascending to World No.1 - ironically after a win over Ostapenko at the China Open - and reaching a third major final to start 2018, finishing runner-up to an inspired Caroline Wozniacki in grueling conditions.
The tour soon turned back to clay, once again presenting the 2008 French Open junior champion with an opportunity to outfox the game's biggest hitters on what had long been her most successful surface.
Though she saw her 15-match Mutua Madrid Open streak end to Karolina Pliskova, she was in prime form at Internazionali BNL d'Italia, dismissing future US Open champion Naomi Osaka and rival Caroline Garcia with the loss of a combined six games en route to the semifinals.
Waiting for her there was Maria Sharapova, who, too, had something to prove on the terre battue. Playing her first full season since 2015, the Russian had faced highs and lows in the year since returning to tour, and the late-blooming clay court expert sought to surge back up the rankings with a full spring schedule. An early hiccup against Garcia at the Porsche Grand Prix belied improvements in Madrid, where she avenged a 2017 Stuttgart loss to Kristina Mladenovic to reach the quarterfinals.
The Foro Italico saw Sharapova at her battling best, surviving future World No.1 Ashleigh Barty, Dominika Cibulkova, and Ostapenko - not to mention 2015 Rome semifinalist Daria Gavrilova - to reach the final four.
Sharapova's rivalry with Halep shifted into turbo in 2014, the year the Romanian began her still-running streak as a Top 10 player. In the four years that followed, they played five three-setters, most on the game's biggest stages - including finals in Madrid and Roland Garros.
A dramatic 2017 US Open first round may be their most memorable clash - with Sharapova stunning a No.2-seeded Halep in her first Grand Slam match in nearly two years - but it was also their most pivotal, with Halep scoring her first win over the Russian weeks later en route to clinching No.1 in Beijing.
How would the two face off on their best surface?
WHAT HAPPENED: While Sharapova tended to get the better of Halep in past matches, Halep often enjoyed the quicker start, and their Centrale clash was no different as the Romanian thrice led by a break to open the match.
The Sharapova return was not only a concept, but also the tactical key to her comeback, and it was at its fearsome best early on, mixing power from the first show with her honed clay court prowess to remain level with the Romanian.
Sharapova's first hold was an chance to move ahead for the first time in the match, and the Russian made no mistake, unleashing a searing forehand angle on the run to find herself serving for the first set.
Two games later she was at set point after forehand whipped up the line, and one last forehand return forced the miss from Halep and clinched the set.
Halep was undaunted to start the second, showing some deft touch at net in a long first game as she broke serve and moved ahead 4-1 when Sharapova put a backhand into the net.
Combining consistency with impressive shotmaking, Halep forced a final set at her first look as Sharapova threw in a double fault.
The ensuing decider was a sight to behold, as both women were at their warrior best. Some sweet angles from Sharapova saw her secure the first break, but Halep was soon up a break of her own, outplaying the Russian in a thrilling fourth game rally that turned a straightforward service hold into a 3-1 advantage.
Two games from defeat, Sharapova surged back with a fearsome backhand return winner, and with a powerful cross court forehand, the two were even at four games apiece.
Where Halep might have buckled, she responded instead with a confident hold, swatting a forehand into the open court as she stood four points from the final.
With Sharapova serving, Halep unleashed, opening with a return winner and earning a pair of match points with a well-placed forehand into the corner. Match point was one last battle but showed Halep's supreme athleticism, forcing a final error from Sharapova for a 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 win after two hours and 26 minutes.
WHAT THEY SAID: Halep's enthusiastic celebration on the court continued in post-match press.
"I was happy that I could play so well and, in the end, win the match," she said. "It's always tough to play against her. So I was really happy, and I celebrated how I felt."
After years of struggling to overcome Sharapova's mental edge, she hedged when asked how much the moment meant, but couldn't avoid the obvious bump a win like this would give her ahead of the season's second Grand Slam tournament.
"The first time when I beat her was more special. Here, it's first time when I beat her on clay. So, it's also special. It gives me confidence because I was able to play one of my best matches so far."
While Sharapova was subdued in defeat, it was nonetheless the end of an impressive stretch from the Russian, clearly one of her best since she last lifted the trophy in Rome back in 2015.
"I think there are a lot of good things that I can take away from a week like this. Setting myself up with good opportunities. I think I was put in a lot of difficult situations within the matches. A lot of the matches were very physical, and considering it's been a third tournament in weeks, I haven't handled that very well body-wise in a long time. That's a very good thing personally for me.
"Overall, I would say, yes, you're right, a step in the right direction toward the next one."
WHAT IT MEANT: Halep would fall in the finals of Rome to Elina Svitolina for a second straight year, but made sure history did not repeat itself in Paris. Playing for Grand Slam glory, she overcame a set and break deficit against then-reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens to, at long last, stand atop the winner's stage at a major tournament.
Long questioned whether she could compete with the game's best on the biggest stages, Halep continued to answer that question emphatically over the next 18 months, finishing a second straight season as World No.1 and shook off losing her French Open title to go even bigger at Wimbledon, halting Serena Williams' march towards a 23rd Grand Slam title to win a second major at the All England Club.
Halep was on another high just as the tour came to its sudden stop, winning a 20th WTA title at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, outlasting an on-fire Elena Rybakina in a thrilling three-set final.
Sharapova's 2018 clay court season continued in fine fashion and ended with a quarterfinal run at Roland Garros. Well as she had played in Rome, physical issues hampered her ability to play a full schedule, which, in turn, left her rusty and susceptible to further injuries and erratic results. The vicious cycle came to an end at this year's Australian Open, where she bowed out in the first round to Donna Vekic, ultimately announcing her retirement from tennis at the end of February.