Sharapova edges Ivanovic in Brisbane, and edges closer to Williams and No1

Maria Sharapova beats Ana Ivanovic in three sets to win the Brisbane International title

Among the three simultaneous WTA finals taking place on this busy tennis weekend—just a week before 2015’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open—the one in Brisbane between the top two seeds Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated.

Both are as popular at 27 as they were when they made precocious starts to their careers: Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17, Ivanovic the French Open at 20, and both went on to become world No1.

And currently ranked Nos 2 and 7 respectively, Sharapova and Ivanovic have both enjoyed rising form through last season and into Australia.

But they are also share one of tennis’s top rivalries, and this was their fifth meeting in nine months. And while Sharapova had led the rivalry through the six years since Ivanovic burst to the top, the gap had closed considerably last year. Their four matches were split two apiece, with one each on both clay and hard courts. Even the scores were similar: A tough three-setter and an easy two-setter to both women.

No wonder this latest final had filled the Pat Rafter Arena—to the rafters. And no surprise that it would become a 2hr 40min cliffhanger of big first-strike tennis. As Sharapova said ahead of the match:

“We always go in and compete. We don’t give up until the end. I think that’s what makes our matches so great.”

It was Sharapova who took first blood with an early break, 4-1, but two double faults handed the break back and they edged to a tie-break. Now Ivanovic, a much more confident player during the last year, took hold of proceedings for an early two-point lead, Sharapova levelled, only for Ivanovic to take three points in a row for the set, 7-6(4) after over an hour of play.

But Sharapova showed her resilience and winning mindset to come back aggressively in the second set. Ivanovic held off immediate break points but succumbed in the third game, and then again in the last: Sharapova took the set, 6-3, with 19 winners.

Ivanovic then left the court for a medical time out, and although she returned to move well and strike the ball soundly and strongly, Sharapova was now in her highly-focused groove and quickly broke to lead 3-0.

But that was not the end. Ivanovic broke back, and they exchanged two more breaks, each fist-pumping themselves to dig deeper. However, it was Sharapova who looked increasingly the stronger, broke through again for 5-3, and served out the match 6-3, after what will surely be one of the nominees for match-of-the-year come December.

Both made more winners than errors, Sharapova edging the lead on both—and her super-aggressive hitting was, in the end, the narrow margin between them.

Ivanovic explained: “She had some great comebacks. She got back the balls that I thought weren’t coming over the net. That’s why she’s where she is, and that’s why she’s such a great champion.”

And where Sharapova is, is right behind Serena Williams in the rankings. Her Brisbane win, her 34th title, closes the margin to 681 points. Both she and Williams lost in the fourth round at the Australian Open last year, so one or both could add big points when they hit Melbourne this time. And Sharapova could return to No1, two and half years after the last time, and nine and a half years after the first time.

But none of that will happen before Williams’s current run hits 100 weeks in a total of 223 weeks garnered through almost 12 years at the top of the game.

Sharapova, though, has done something that Williams has not: won at least one WTA title every year since 2003… that’s 13 years and counting. Not bad for a woman who is, arguably, playing with more intensity than ever before.

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