Li carries Asia's hopes into French final

By Mark Meadows

PARIS (Reuters) - China's Li Na proved her Australian Open runners-up spot in January was no fluke by repeating the trick and reaching the French Open final after a commanding win over a windswept Maria Sharapova on Thursday.

The Russian had just one ploy, but hitting the ball as hard as she could each point made no difference whatsoever against the dogged sixth seed, who has shown time and again over the past two weeks that she does not let go.

"She had a huge big serve so I thought please double fault so I can win the match," Li, 29 and one of China's biggest sports names, said courtside after her wish came true.

"I never believed myself that I could be in the French Open final, I wish I can do even better in Saturday's final."

Li will face Italy's Francesca Schiavone in the final after the defending champion ended French hopes by beating Marion Bartoli in Thursday's second semi-final.

The Chinese sports minister is set to fly over to Paris for the final, organizers said, joining a number of fans who donned the traditional panama hats on Thursday and other Chinese supporters who wore the red and yellow colors of their flag.

When a drop shot or something different was required, seventh seed Sharapova froze in the cooling breeze during an otherwise sunny day at Roland Garros.

"She played a very good match. She certainly played a lot better than I did and a lot more solid, and she played the crucial points better," Sharapova said after 10 double faults.

"At times I didn't serve well, and was rushing more than maybe I had to, and considering the conditions maybe I was just trying to go for too big a second serve especially."

SAME ERROR

In the first set, Li raced into a 3-0 lead and broke three times as Sharapova, who took two games off the Chinese player's serve, struggled for rhythm on the clay.

An awful double fault from Li early in the second let the Russian back in but the three-times grand slam champion wasted the advantage when she committed the same error for 4-4.

Li, who lost to Kim Clijsters in Melbourne, sealed victory and a place in the final when her wilting opponent double faulted again to the delight of millions of Chinese watching at home and the smattering on court.

The top three seeds Caroline Wozniacki, Clijsters and Vera Zvonareva went out early at this year's tournament, prompting pundits to again slam the uninspiring women's game in the absence of injured powerhouses Serena and Venus Williams.

But a woman from the world's most populous nation in a final again is gold dust to the WTA tour, sponsors and broadcasters with China's appetite for tennis only just beginning to flower.

(Editing by Pritha Sarkar and Martyn Herman)