"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 yesterday. 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 player from China to reach a major championship match. At the French Open tomorrow, 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 a major title. But she failed to make the final of any tournament since then, until beating the 11th-seeded Marion Bartoli of France, 6-3, 6-3, yesterday.
"When I come here," the fifth-seeded Schiavone said, "I feel something special."