China’s Li Na carried the hopes of a continent into the French Open final as she blew away Maria Sharapova’s dream of a career Grand Slam to set up a Roland Garros showdown with holder Francesca Schiavone on Thursday.
Sixth seed Li, bidding to become the first Asian to win a Grand Slam singles title, punished former world No. 1 Sharapova 6-4, 7-5 on a windy Parisian day, before French hopes died when fifth seed Schiavone eased past Marion Bartoli with a relatively routine 6-3, 6-3 win on court Philippe Chatrier.
If she needs any encouragement, she need look no further than the feisty Schiavone, who this time last year became an Italian sporting heroine by beating Samantha Stosur to become the first woman from her country to win a Grand Slam singles title.
“It’s something important for Chinese tennis. They broadcast the match live on Chinese TV,” Li, the Australian Open runner-up, told a press conference. “I think many children have been able to watch the match and they are maybe thinking that one day they’ll be able to do the same, or even better.”
Li, who according to organizers attracted between 5 million and 7 million additional viewers in China, is also expected to rely on the Chinese Sports Minister Liu Peng’s support, with Liu planning to travel to Paris for the final.
The momentum Sharapova had built up during the tournament with her dominant power tennis had installed her as many people’s favorite for the one Slam to elude her, but all that expectation went flat as, with no plan B tucked away in her fancy handbag, she never really recovered from a terrible start, despite the never-say-die attitude that has got her out of many jams in the past.
“You obviously try to adjust, especially after you lose the first set. I still feel like I had my share of chances in the first set and I just didn’t take them,” said Sharapova, whose cause was not helped by 10 double faults.
Li cantered into a 3-0 lead as she snatched her opponent’s serve twice, relying on her powerful forehand to put the normally assertive Sharapova on her back foot.
With swirls of red clay dust whipping up in the breeze on court Philippe Chatrier, Sharapova did manage to close the gap to 4-3, before the last three games of the set went against serve, Li wrapping up the opening set when Sharapova’s forehand clipped the net-cord and bounced wide.
Sharapova broke at the fourth attempt in the opening game of the second set, but Li hung on, saving another break in the fifth game. The Chinese was gifted her next break when Sharapova double-faulted and another service misfire handed Li victory in 1 hour, 48 minutes.
It did not take Schiavone as long to extend her remarkable Roland Garros winning streak to 13 matches.
Bartoli went on the attack from the start, trying to unsettle Schiavone with her trademark cross-court double-handed shots, but the Italian showed once again her love for the clay. Schiavone stole Bartoli’s serve to move 5-3 ahead, before serving out the set.
The 11th-seeded Bartoli fought back, opening a 2-0 lead in the second set, only for Schiavone, whose spinning forehand did most of the damage, to break back for 2-2.
Bartoli, hoping to become the first French player to win the singles in Paris since Mary Pierce in 2000, then just ran out of steam, conceding another break in the seventh game and she bowed out when she netted a forehand.