Put aside the Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal storyline for a moment. It's one of the sport's most compelling developments in years, perhaps to come to a head at the French Open, but from this corner, the best story of the Rome Masters was Maria Sharapova's stirring triumph.
In a single week, she cleared a number of obstacles: the irresponsibly bitter Victoria Azarenka, the brick wall of Caroline Wozniacki's defense, and finally Samantha Stosur's forehand in Sunday's 6-2, 6-4 final.
And how did she get past them all? Patience, power, tactics and the one thing she never lost during a long, often-frustrating comeback: belief.
Credit Matt Cronin of tennisreporters.net for revealing the dark side of Sharapova's quarterfinal against Azarenka. It ended much too soon, Azarenka retiring with an elbow injury, but Azarenka -- rightfully given credit recently for keeping her emotions in check -- regressed into inexcusable petulance this time.
"Azarenka emotionally imploded," Cronin wrote, "appearing to say 'f---ing [b----]' after she won the first set 6-4 and then making an aggressive arm motion (the old-school left hand into the right elbow and raising the lower right arm to signal 'F--- you') after she was forced to retire."
It wasn't clear whether any of this was aimed at Sharapova; the two have a reasonably friendly relationship and occasionally practice together. But Sharapova, while appearing sympathetic during the handshake, refused to comment about the outbursts after the match.
"Very sad and tough day for me," Azarenka wrote via her Twitter account. "Said some things to myself in the match that I'm not proud of. But it was just being mad at myself. Will never refer anything to my opponent. I apologize if there was a misunderstanding of the situation."
Emotions aside, that match constituted a stroke of good fortune for Sharapova. Azarenka seldom has a problem playing Maria on even terms, and she could have closed out the match if the injury hadn't occurred.
Then came the semifinal against Wozniacki, once again having to prove her worth as the world's No. 1-ranked player and coming up short, 7-5, 6-3. But it wasn't so much Wozniacki's game, as usual a blend of exceptional defense and mental toughness. Sharapova appears to have finally resurrected her serve, after months of pain and the residue of self-doubt, and it was a powerful weapon throughout. Even as she delivered most every first serve to Wozniacki's forehand from the deuce court, Wozniacki was rarely able to counter with much force.
Sharapova's moment of truth came as she served for the first set at 6-5. Because she had lost four consecutive finals, and dropped a few notches in the world view, she easily could have questioned her ability to finish. But Sharapova never runs short of resolve. She'd been cracking first serves all day (74 percent), and in holding at 15, she ignited all of her winning points that way.
Wozniacki's fabled defense reached a peak in the second game of the second set, when Sharapova blasted a cross-court forehand and Wozniacki, on the dead run, rifled a stunning forehand winner down the line. Sharapova's pursuit sent her sprawling awkwardly to the ground, a sight seldom seen over the years.
"I took a dive," she said. "I thought I was on the cliffs of Italy and forgot there was no water out there."
By the final game, Sharapova's power was simply awe-inspiring. Hitting out with full force, she ended the match with a pair of blistering forehand service returns. Her reaction was one of unbridled joy, and you got the feeling she had no intention of letting Sunday's final slip away. Stosur's game is back on the rise, but Sharapova prevailed behind two sensible tactics: pounding away at Stosur's weak backhand and hitting cross-court forehands with such fury, Stosur had difficulty answering in kind.
Once amusingly self-deprecating about her performances on clay (who could forget the "cow on ice" remark?), Sharapova says she now feels comfortable due to increased lower-body strength and her years of experience. This is no longer her dreaded surface, and with the French Open looming, it's great to see her back in top form.
* * * * *
One can only marvel at Djokovic's unrelenting thirst for victory. With a potential final less than 24 hours away, he engaged Andy Murray in a wild, three-hour classic Saturday night. He knows that his clay-court history will be most formidably written at the French Open, but he came at Nadal with all guns blazing and was the superior player in every phase. This man hasn't lost a match all year, and he clearly finds the notion unthinkable.
Once appreciative of Djokovic's ascent, Nadal seems a tad resentful just now, giving the Serb a dismissive handshake and only a cursory glance at the finish. "I am second in the race," Nadal said after his fourth straight loss to Djokovic, and he might be finding himself tentative strategically. How else to explain the half-dozen (maybe more) outright shanks from Nadal on routine groundstrokes?
Two other thoughts on Djokovic: 1) His gluten-free diet is about to gain runaway popularity among athletes struggling with their endurance, and 2) Consider how far he has come from the 2008 U.S. Open, when Andy Roddick mocked Djokovic's track record of injury withdrawals and recoiled at his hilarious on-court imitations. Djokovic now rules the sport, with a glowing personality to match. He's steaming across the landscape on a high-powered train. Roddick is many miles behind, trying to thumb a ride.
* * * * *
NOTES: Roddick just can't buy a break. Ousted in the first round at the hands of Gilles Simon, he stormed through the doubles draw with Mardy Fish, including a noteworthy upset of the top-seeded Bryan brothers in the quarterfinals. So what happens? Roddick pulls up lame with a sore right shoulder (bad sign) and has to pull out of the final. Then he learns that the ATP has withheld their prize money ($31,400) over the withdrawal. "We're going to have to beg for the money we earned," Roddick said. "This is embarrassing for the tour. The ATP should stand for the Association of Tie People." ... Tennis Channel faces a long road in its quest to match credibility with the major networks, but it scored mightily in signing Mary Carillo to work the French Open and U.S. Open. Should be a treat to hear her working alongside John McEnroe (at least occasionally) during the French ... Roger Federer had won eight straight matches against Richard Gasquet before that three-set shocker in the third round. The two produced a special brand of elegance with their deft touch and one-hand backhands, and Federer was admittedly "annoyed" by the loss. Interesting take from the esteemed Tom Tebbutt of Tennis.com, who said Federer had Gasquet "looking totally confused" but "lost his edge, took his foot off the pedal and let his opponent off the hook. It was almost as if he found a way to lose." ... So there was Murray, two points from knocking off Djokovic at 5-4, 30-15 in the third set of their semifinal. All credit to Murray for playing a fabulous match, surely a boost to his faltering confidence, but he double-faulted on that point -- and again when Djokovic earned a second break point. Good thing the television feed didn't pick up the on-court audio right then, because Murray unleashed a torrent of obscenities upon himself. As for the tiebreaker, Djokovic was simply masterful, setting up the final two winning points with beautifully timed backhand drop shots.
How many times has an athlete feigned indifference when asked about a preferred next opponent? Not Nadal. "I don't want to be stupid -- I prefer Murray," Nadal said after he'd won the first semifinal. "Djokovic is playing at an exceptional level right now." No kidding. ... As John Isner took a 6-4, 6-1 loss to Juan Ignacio Chela in the first round, Cronin called his performance "desultory" and said he "mentally threw in the towel in the second set. The man needs a kick in the pants." ... While the women's big guns were in Rome, 10th-ranked Petra Kvitova (winner in Madrid last week) dropped off the map to play an ITF event in her native Czech Republic -- and lost the final to 72nd-ranked Magdalena Rybarikova, 6-3, 6-4. Admirably, Kvitova said she felt obligated to repay "a lot of people who helped me on the way up." ... Azarenka has to realize that whenever she takes the court, people almost expect her to retire. That's 10 times now since the start of 2010. ... There's no way Francesca Schiavone should lose to Stosur on her cherished Italian clay, but there was a wonderful moment during her earlier match against Daniela Hantuchova. As reported via wire service, after a particularly soul-stirring shot by Schiavone, "Organizers blasted the old Neapolitan folk song 'O Surdato "Nnammurato"' over the loudspeakers and nearly all of the 10,500 fans in attendance sang along." Oh, to have been there.