The No.2-seeded Sharapova never faced a break point and lost just 10 points in eight service games - and broke the Spaniard's serve four times during the match - to score a 64-minute, 62 62 triumph.
"She is a rising player from Spain and is playing well, and the conditions were windy out there, but I was able to adjust and win this match," Sharapova said. "I knew going into the match I needed to be sharp and as quick as possible, and I did a few specific things well out there, and that's about it."
Sharapova is the two-time defending champion at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, winning back-to-back titles here in 2011 and 2012 - and not counting her withdrawal in the semifinals the previous time she played the tournament in 2008, she has actually won her last 14 matches in a row at this event.
"This is a meaningful tournament for me," Sharapova said. "This is one of the tournaments I've won a couple of times, and I've also been playing here since I was really young. The crowds here are so enthusiastic and give me so much support, so it just feels great to be out on the court here."
"It's always tough to play someone from the same country - we were in the national team together, and we trained and practiced for a long time together," Li said. "It's like being twins on the tour, and it's tough to fight against each other on the court. But I was really happy I could beat her today."
Last year's final couldn't have been any closer, with Sharapova having to dig out of a 64 40 deficit and even save match point late in the third set to make it past Li in an absolute nail-biter, 46 64 76(5).
Speaking of nail-biters, No.7 seed Sara Errani was involved with one in her opener, edging Christina McHale in a two-hour, 52-minute marathon, 75 57 62. Errani had all kinds of chances to close it out in the second set - she led 5-2 and missed out on five match points during that stretch. She then missed three match points serving at 5-2 in the third before finally clinching it on match point No.9.
"It was a very tough match - it was difficult because she started playing even better at the important moments - but I'm happy I could stay there in the third and win the match," Errani said. "It's very special to be here. The crowds are so good and there are a lot of people supporting me. Sometimes it's not easy because there's also a lot of pressure, but it's okay. It's very special to play here anyway."
Other early winners were No.12 seed Maria Kirilenko, No.13 seed Roberta Vinci, No.14 seed Dominika Cibulkova, No.16 seed Sloane Stephens, Jelena Jankovic, Carla Suárez Navarro and lucky loser Lourdes Domínguez Lino. Jankovic, who was one spot out of the seeds, is a two-time champion here.