Bopping on her toes behind the baseline, Maria Sharapova took shadow swings while awaiting Li Na's serve. Even when the ball wasn't in play, Sharapova looked like a woman going places in the final set.
Delivering her most ambitious shotmaking in the critical stages, Sharapova broke three times in the third set rallying for a 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory to reach her fifth semifinal of the season in Madrid.
A clash of former French Open champions featured power surges and fretful patches as both women took turns dictating play and missing the mark. World No. 1 Serena Williams withdrew from the day's first scheduled quarterfinal with a thigh injury, making this an opportunity match. Sharapova took the court with a 43-3 clay-court record since the start of 2012 with all three losses on dirt coming against Serena.
Seeking her first clay-court win over Sharapova since the 2011 Roland Garros semifinals, Li was sharper at the start, cracking a return directly back at her opponent to draw the error and earn triple break point. Curling a crosscourt forehand, Li scored her second straight break for 5-2. Moving beautifully and beating her opponent to the ball, the Australian Open champion ran off 11 consecutive points to close the opening set on a five-game tear.
When Sharapova flattened a forehand into net, Li had the first break of the second set and a 4-3 lead. It was short lived. Sharapova plastered a series of deep returns down the middle to deny Li access to angles, coax errors and earn triple break point. A jamming deep return drew an errant backhand and Sharapova broke back for 4-all. Crunching a backhand crosscourt, Li earned double-break point in the 11th game, but then pulled the trigger prematurely, missing a wild forehand and netting a backhand down the line. Sharapova slid her first ace of the match out wide before digging out a demanding hold for 6-5.
Li's backhand was a damaging weapon in building the lead; that shot let her down in the tiebreaker as Sharapova burst out to a 4-0 advantage. Sharapova whipped a forehand down the line to earn four set points and though Li denied the first three, the eighth-seeded Russian ran down a drop shot and snatched the 73-minute second set when Li framed a reply—her 22nd error of the set—into net. The pair would play a decider for just the third time in 15 career meetings.
Three successive breaks started the third set as both women tried to straddle the baseline battling for control of the center of the court. Deadlocked at deuce, Sharapova ended an electric 20-shot rally with a bang, blasting a forehand winner down the line she punctuated with a clenched fist. A twisting kick serve followed by a firm "come on!" sealed the first hold of the set for 3-1.
Nerves constricted their right arms in the sixth game. Sharapova clanked two double faults and missed a swing volley to face triple break point; then it was Li's turn to tighten. One point from breaking back, the world No. 2 dumped four straight errors as Sharapova eventually staved off the challenge to hold for 4-2. Li answered with her second straight love hold for 3-4, but that was her last stand
Commanding the center of the court and changing direction shrewdly, Sharapova reeled off eight straight points, closing her ninth straight victory in two hours, 31 minutes when Li double faulted on match point—her 43rd error of the day. The 2013 Madrid runner-up will face either third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska or qualifier Caroline Garcia for a spot in Sunday's final.