Updated: June 22, 2010, 5:46 PM ET

Sharapova finally fully functioning

Garber By Greg Garber
ESPN.com
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WIMBLEDON, England -- She has already lived the American dream.

Born in the cruel, almost laughably remote outpost of Siberia, she moved to Florida as a child and became one of the best tennis players in the world.

At age 23 -- when most kids are still in entry-level jobs -- the Russian recently signed the richest deal ever for a female athlete, an eight-year endorsement contract with Nike for $70 million.

She is incredibly tall and pretty and blonde. She has it all -- well, almost all.

Now, all Maria Sharapova wants is to hit that little yellow tennis ball well enough again to win another major title.

"I've put a lot of matches in the last few weeks, and my game is stepping up to where it has to be to win a Grand Slam title," Sharapova said before her fortnight began here.

She said it with conviction because she knows what is necessary to come through a 128-woman draw and hold the sterling trophy aloft. Sharapova did it here on Centre Court only six years ago as a gangly 17-year-old. But in her mind and in the fast-forward world of professional athletics, that was a generation ago. She won the U.S. Open two years later and, in 2008, took the Australian Open. A victory at Wimbledon, hardly implausible, would offer some symmetry and follow the existing two-year cycle.

On Tuesday, Sharapova stepped off on her quest for a second Wimbledon title, flogging Anastasia Pivovarova 6-1, 6-0 in 54 minutes.

Two years ago, Sharapova wondered whether she would ever play at that level again. After a second-round loss here, she underwent surgery on her right shoulder and sat out 10 months.

"It was unfortunate that I had to have a pretty severe operation at a young age," she said. "It's not exactly the best situation, the thing you want to do. I certainly knew that some have never come back from it. A majority of people that come back from shoulder surgery never came back to play tennis again.

"It always crosses your mind, creates setbacks. First, I was trying to hit a tennis ball for more than a few minutes a day. Then it was trying to get back to competition because that's what I love. As much as I love the sport, I never gave up on coming back."

So here she is. There's not quite enough context yet to say she is all the way back. She's altered her serving motion and resigned herself to winning ugly, and more often than not, that's what she does.

Sharapova won two tournaments earlier this year, in Memphis and Strasbourg, but never beat a player ranked higher than No. 49. In fact, her four losses this year are to the highest-ranked players she's faced: No. 11 Na Li, No. 23 Justine Henin and Zheng Jie and No. 30 Lucie Safarova.

But that could come soon enough, perhaps Monday.

At the Wimbledon warm-up event a few weeks ago in Birmingham, England, the most significant thing that happened to Sharapova was not advancing to the final (where she lost to Li). It was a mildly astonishing 121 mph serve of her racket in the semifinals.

Later, when they told her it was the fastest of her career, Sharapova thought, "Wow."

We will soon see. If she proceeds through the draw as expected, she would collide with No. 1 seed and defending champion Serena Williams. A year ago, it wouldn't have been close. Watching her dismantle Pivovarova, the 20-year-old Russian, on Tuesday, seeing her set jaw and steely scowl, you could be forgiven if you thought it just might be possible.

Three things I KNOW I think

1. The grass is NOT greener across the English Channel: On Monday, the 2008 and 2010 champions of Roland Garros, respectively, Ana Ivanovic and Francesca Schiavone, went out in the first round. On Tuesday, 2009 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova almost followed them in succumbing to the French curse. She needed to win the last two games before beating Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-4 in a two-hour match. For good measure, 2010 French Open finalist Samantha Stosur was escorted from the grounds by Kaia Kanepi 6-4, 6-4.

2. The margin, at this level, is microscopic: Take Robert Kendrick, for example. The 30-year-old Californian had won exactly zero ATP-level matches this year, but he qualified his way into the main draw. His reward in the first round? No. 10-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Kendrick played beautifully, forcing Tsonga into tiebreakers in the first two sets. He actually led 4-2 in the second before Tsonga -- using a successful replay challenge -- prevailed and went on to a 7-6 (2), 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-4 win.

Technically, Kendrick has played only three ATP matches (he qualified in Delray Beach and Memphis but lost in the first round) for the entire year. But this was his 40th overall match, including qualifying and nine Challenger appearances. His best result: reaching the May final at Carson, Calif., where he lost to Donald Young.

On Tuesday, he gave the Frenchman all he could handle, which underlines how far it is from No. 10 in the rankings down to No. 161.

3. Rafa looks dialed-in: Nadal toyed with Kei Nishikori, taking the 20-year-old 6-2, 6-4, 6-4. With Roger Federer's near swoon in the first round, he looks like the favorite on the men's side.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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