By DANIELLA MATAR, Associated Press
ROME (AP) — Maria Sharapova successfully defended her Italian Open title Sunday, beating Li Na 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5) in a wild match in which play was twice interrupted by rain and the red clay turned to mud.
"The match was a joke," Li said. "It's tough to play in such heavy rain and then you go and rest for two hours and then play again in heavy rain. ... But I still have positive things to take away. She was just stronger and tougher."
The rain proved even more formidable for a men's final that never happened. Defending champion Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will have to wait until Monday to settle their championship.
Li appeared on course for victory when she surged to a 6-4, 4-0 lead, but 24 unforced errors from the French Open champion allowed Sharapova to take the next six games and the set.
Sharapova then seemed certain to win when it began to drizzle. The second-seeded Russian took a 4-1 lead in the third, but Li fought back to win four straight games to lead 5-4. Both held serve the rest of the way, forcing a tiebreaker.
After waiting out the rain for two hours in the locker room, the third set was over in five minutes. Sharapova completed the victory in 2 hours, 52 minutes.
"It was a really difficult match what with so many swings and having to wait an hour or two hours and then a tiebreaker in the final," Sharapova said. "It almost feels difficult to have a loser and a winner as it all came down to one game, but I am happy.
"It's great to beat someone at the level she played last year and knowing how well she plays on clay and how she defends and get herself back in good positions."
Sharapova had the first break of the match. Li, however, broke straight back and did so again in the 11th game to take the first set.
Li was in control as she broke to love and raced to a 4-0 lead in the second set, taking 15 of 17 points as Sharapova struggled with the ferocity of her strokes. But the pressure seemed to get to the eighth-seeded Chinese, and Sharapova won the next eight games.
Li clawed her way back in when she got to 40-0 in the ninth game of the second set. But Sharapova broke following a couple of unforced errors and two double-faults and went on to serve for the set.
Li managed to even the final set as the rain lashed down. The match was delayed briefly at 5-5 and the players waited courtside for it to ease up before play resumed.
Sharapova almost handed the match to Li when she smashed the ball into the net, giving her opponent a championship point. But Sharapova persevered with a powerful forehand to the corner.
With rain pouring, the players were asked if they wanted to continue. Both said they did, but were eventually forced off court before the tiebreaker with the torrential rain leaving the court a mess.
Despite the outcome, Li liked her strokes and the way she moved. Now she's turning her thoughts to Paris.
"I think I am ready for the French Open," she said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.