PARIS — As Maria Sharapova prepared to serve while only a point from defeat in the French Open semifinals, Li Na was thinking what any opponent would at that precise moment.
“I was, like, ‘Please, double-fault. That way I can win the match,'” Li explained to the crowd a few moments later.
Sharapova obliged. Her second serve hit the white tape atop the net and bounced back for Sharapova’s 10th double-fault of an error-filled afternoon, closing Li’s 6-4, 7-5 victory Thursday. The result ended Sharapova’s bid to complete a career Grand Slam, and allowed Li to reach a second consecutive major final.
At the Australian Open in January, Li was the runner-up, the first tennis player from China to reach a major championship match. At the French Open on Saturday — when she will play defending champion Francesca Schiavone — Li can become the first Grand Slam champion from her nation of more than 1 billion people.
The sixth-seeded Li said she wants her sport to “get bigger and bigger” back home. Noting that Chinese children probably saw her semifinal on TV, Li said that perhaps “they think that maybe one day, they can do the same — or even better.”
A year ago at Roland Garros, Schiavone became the first woman from Italy to win one of tennis’ four most important titles. But she had failed to make it to the final of any tournament since then, until taking the last four games to beat 11th-seeded Marion Bartoli of France 6-3, 6-3 Thursday.
“When I come here,” the fifth-seeded Schiavone said, “I feel something special.”
After Bartoli’s last two-handed forehand — she grips her racket with both fists on nearly every shot — dropped into the net to end the day’s second semifinal, Schiavone celebrated by bending down and rubbing her right palm on the clay court, then making a fist and kissing it.
She fell in love with the French Open the first time she came to play in the junior tournament and got a chance to see Steffi Graf and Monica Seles play in the semifinals. Schiavone sat in the stands, like any other fan, and snapped a photo she still looks at to this day.
“I remember that moment,” Schiavone recounted, “and I (said then), ‘I want to play in this court. I want to be like them.'”
At 30, Schiavone would be the first woman at least that old to win a Grand Slam title since Martina Navratilova was 33 at Wimbledon in 1990. Combine Schiavone’s age with the 29-year-old Li’s, and Saturday’s match will have the oldest pair of finalists at a major tournament in 13 years.
“The years can help a lot,” Schiavone said. “Is like the wine.”
The final will provide quite a contrast in styles.
Comfortable on clay, Schiavone looks for chances to charge the net and lathers her shots with plenty of spin, accompanying most with loud grunts. She’s also among the most demonstrative women on tour, and she skipped with delight after many of her 22 winners, twice as many as Bartoli hit.
Much more confident on hard courts, Li prefers to stay at the baseline, hitting flat shots in near silence. Only as the end neared against Sharapova did Li occasionally pump a fist.
Driving her big forehand near lines, Li finished with 24 winners, double Sharapova’s count. It was a performance that prompted Li’s coach since April, Michael Mortensen, to describe her Thursday as “kind of Roger Federer of the women; she can do so many things.”
Perhaps due to swirling wind, what began as a high-quality contest between two big hitters devolved for a bit into a competition to determine who would serve less poorly. In one stretch, there were five consecutive breaks of serve.
In one game, Sharapova double-faulted three times. In two others, including when ceding a 4-3 lead in the second set and again in the last game of the match, she double-faulted twice.
She would roll her eyes or slap her thigh after various miscues, but couldn’t get things straightened out. After flubbing the second serve on match point, Sharapova hung her head.
“At times, I didn’t serve well, and was rushing more than maybe I had to,” Sharapova said, “and maybe — considering the conditions — maybe I was just trying to go for too big of second serves, especially.”
The 24-year-old Russian won Wimbledon in 2004 at age 17, the U.S. Open in 2006, and the Australian Open in 2008. She’s still waiting to reach her first French Open final.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing. As an athlete, you want to win. There’s no doubt,” Sharapova said. “But, you know, good retail therapy, and I’ll be fine.”
Howard Fendrich can be reached at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich