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.”
McIlroy leads Memorial
Dublin, Ohio — Rory McIlroy only gets to play three regular PGA Tour events this year. He showed Thursday why the Memorial Tournament was one of them.
On a Muirfield Village course that already ranks among his favorites, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland had a birdie putt on his last eight holes and converted half of them on his way to a 6-under 66 to join Chris Riley in the lead after the first round.
Chris DiMarco and Josh Teater were at 67, followed by a large group at 68 that included Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Stewart Cink and Rickie Fowler, the runner-up at the Memorial last year.
Kansas University graduate Gary Woodland shot an even-par 72 and is tied for 52nd.
Horne ahead at Wales Open
Newport, Wales — South Africa’s Keith Horne shot a 7-under 64 to take the first-round lead in the Wales Open, leaving defending champion Graeme McDowell three strokes back at Celtic Manor.
Sweden’s Peter Hanson opened with a 65, and England’s Paul Broadhurst and Steve Webster and Spain’s Alvaro Velasco had 66s on The Twenty Ten Course, the site of the Ryder Cup last year.
Mauer back behind the dish
Fort Myers, Fla. — Joe Mauer is back to crouching behind the plate, a bit tired but committed to being a catcher.
The rehabilitating Minnesota Twins star caught three innings Thursday in an extended spring training game, his first action on defense since he was sent to the disabled list in mid-April with weakness and soreness in his legs.
Mauer went 0-for-5 at the plate, with two flyouts to left field and three groundouts to the right side of the infield.
Giants’ 3B set to begin rehab
St. Louis — San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval is set to begin a rehab assignment today.
Sandoval has been on the disabled list while recovering from surgery on his right wrist. Manager Bruce Bochy said Thursday that Sandoval would play six innings at Class-A San Jose in his first game, then play the next day for the California League team. After that, he’ll play a few more games at Triple-A Fresno.
Bochy said the switch-hitting Sandoval would need four or five games in the minors to get his timing.
Burrows avoids suspension
Vancouver, British Columbia — Alex Burrows has avoided a suspension in the Stanley Cup finals after NHL officials decided they couldn’t prove the Vancouver Canucks forward bit the finger of Boston’s Patrice Bergeron.
Burrows and Bergeron were involved in a skirmish after the first-period buzzer in Vancouver’s 1-0 series-opening victory over the Bruins on Wednesday night.
Television replays showed Bergeron apparently putting his gloved right index finger in Burrows’ mouth. Bergeron claimed Burrows then bit down on him, but Burrows denied it.
Game 1 earns best rating since ’99
New York — The opener of the Stanley Cup finals drew the best preliminary rating for a Game 1 in 12 years.
The Vancouver Canucks’ last-second 1-0 win over the Boston Bruins earned a 3.2 overnight rating and 6 share on NBC on Wednesday. That’s up 14 percent from last year’s Philadelphia-Chicago Game 1 and the highest since a 3.7 for Buffalo-Dallas in 1999.
Nebraska hires ex-major leaguer
Lincoln, Neb. — Darin Erstad goes into his first job as a head coach with the confidence one would expect from a guy who played 14 years in the majors and was a two-time All-Star.
Nebraska hired Erstad on Thursday to lead his alma mater’s baseball program into the Big Ten, and his immediate goals are high.
“Win the Big Ten championship, go to a regional, super regional and on to the College World Series,” Erstad said at his introductory news conference. “There are no points for second place in my book.”
Erstad, who turns 37 on Saturday, is known to Cornhuskers. He was the punter on Nebraska’s 1994 national championship football team and the first pick of the 1995 major league draft.
SEC hoops to scrap divisions
Destin, Fla. — Men’s basketball in the Southeastern Conference is about to be united.
The league is expected to eliminate divisions today, a move that would make seeding the postseason tournament more fair but also could create some scheduling issues.
The SEC’s 12 basketball coaches proposed to athletic directors this week that the league scrap the divisional format and that the tournament be seeded 1 through 12. The top four teams would receive byes in the opening round.
Commissioner Mike Slive expects the proposal to pass when athletic directors and school presidents vote today, and the changes would be implemented for the 2011-12 season.