Nadal advances, Sharapova shines

Nadal advances, Sharapova shines

Published May. 14, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

Richard Gasquet and Maria Sharapova played some magnificent tennis Saturday at the Foro Italico. But there was a difference.

Sharapova won and Gasquet lost.

Without being unkind to Caroline Wozniacki, who went down to Sharapova in the second women’s semifinal of the day (7-5, 6-3), the quality of the opposition had much to do with it.

Wozniacki may prove herself to be a worthy No. 1 in the world one day, but she is no Rafael Nadal, and it was the great Spaniard whom Gasquet had to face on another glorious day here in front of a packed and enthusiastic crowd.


Gasquet lost 7-5, 6-1, but not before this enigmatic Frenchman showed why he is such a frustration for French tennis. The beautiful, flowing one-handed backhand has always been a great weapon for him, but he now seems to have confidence in his forehand, too, since taking on Ricardo Piatti as his coach.

And it was mainly with a series of thrilling forehands that he engaged Nadal in one of the greatest rallies we have seen all year — flashing drives from all over the court with balls clipping lines and finally touching the net from Nadal’s racket.

Gasquet dug it out, but a Nadal forehand winner finally brought the exchange to a close, and the people were on their feet. It was almost the final statement of the first set and, once he had lost it, Gasquet’s balloon popped — as it has done too often in the past — and there was only going to be one winner.

So Nadal rolls on and is ready to contest his sixth final in six tournaments. Three of them — Indian Wells, Miami and Madrid — saw him lose to Novak Djokovic. Two — Monte Carlo and Barcelona — Nadal won.

Six days ago at the Caja Majica, it was possible that Nadal’s subpar performance was affected by the beginning of a virus that turned into a fever as soon as he arrived in Rome.

But that has passed. Nadal is always loath to use health as an excuse, and you will never find him bleating about misfortune.

Still, Nadal knows he has been struggling a little of late and, feeling better, he is obviously determined to re-establish his pre-eminence on clay. In his press conference, he gave every sign of being in the zone. He was tense, serious and, for once, there were no smiles. He did not share in the laughter when he was asked whether he would watch the second semifinal between Djokovic and Andy Murray (which Djokovic later won).

“I will be in the hotel, and there is not the right channel,” he replied curtly. The hotel manager will not want to run into Rafa in this mood in the lobby.

Asked how he felt about matching up with Djokovic again, Nadal replied, “Maybe I feel less pressure now because I am not (the) favorite. But seriously, I do not believe favorites. People love to hear about favorites, but for me it is not strange not to be a favorite because it is something I have never felt. The player who plays best wins. I know you have to write, but I have to play.”

Gasquet, meanwhile, should take heart from Nadal’s words.

“He is playing fantastic, and it was great for him winning against Roger (Federer), all the time focused and fighting. I am happy to see him back at his best now. He is a good friend and a good guy. He is at his best playing aggressive, and I think he has the potential to be more aggressive.”

A determination to be more aggressive was the prime factor that carried Sharapova through to her first Rome final after losing in the semis here in 2005 and 2008. Wozniacki, the great defender, had beaten Sharapova in their past two encounters — at the U.S. Open last year and Indian Wells two months ago. And on clay, Sharapova knew that she had to unleash her forehand at full power if she was to have any chance of breaching the Danish defenses.

Sharapova succeeded but it was never easy. Wozniacki ran and scrambled and shoveled back everything within her reach. But the Russian knows how to maneuver players out of position, and she was able to win crucial points by whacking forehands in an empty court.

In the end, Sharapova struck 36 winners to her opponent’s 15, and if the unforced-error count favored Wozniacki 20-27, it was never going to be enough against Sharapova in this kind of form.

The Russian will now face Samantha Stosur of Australia, who will also be appearing in her first Italian final. Last year’s French Open finalist had a struggle on her hands in the first set against China’s Li Na, but eventually took total control of the match to win 7-6, 6-0.

There seems to be a new men’s doubles team on the tour. On Friday, Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish won a hugely entertaining match against their Davis Cup colleagues Mike and Bob Bryan, 10-4, in the super tie-break. They followed that up Saturday by reaching the final with a 7-6, 6-2 victory over Carlos Berlocq of Argentina and Finland’s Jarkko Nieminen. Both Roddick and Fish wanted more time on clay. They’ve found a way of getting it.


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