Sharapova finally fully functioning
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.
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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.
A bleak Blake
Not many surprises for Americans on Day 2 at Wimbledon.
No. 1 seed Serena Williams won comfortably, handling Michelle Larcher De Brito 6-0, 6-4 to reach the second round. No. 18 seed Sam Querrey won when Sergiy Stakhovsky retired with a mysterious virus while trailing 7-6 (4), 6-3, 2-1. It was Querrey's sixth straight win on grass.
"To be honest, it's almost embarrassing to go out and play a Grand Slam match like that," Blake said. "Maybe it says to me that I came back too soon, or maybe I'm just too far away where I think I need to be."
It's been a rough year for Blake, who was ranked as high as No. 4 in the world in 2006, the year he reached the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open for the second consecutive year.
After losing on Tuesday, Blake said a knee injury has forced him to contemplate retirement at age 30.
"The knee is not great," he said. "If it doesn't get better soon, I'm not sure how much longer I want to play in pain. I just took 10 weeks off. I thought that was going to do it and be the answer. We did everything we could rehabwise correctly, I think. It was feeling great in Eastbourne, and then had a little setback.
"Now it's not feeling great again."
Blake said he would try to keep playing through the U.S. Open.
"If it's continuing to play in pain, I'll reassess after the Open and see if I want to continue that," he said. "If I need to, after the Open, take the rest of the year off and then see if I can start fresh in 2011.
"I don't know. It's a bit of an unknown. A lot of people think the unknown is fun. Some people think it's scary. I think it's a little bit of both."
Blake looked frustrated during his first-round match on Court 5 and at one point got into a spirited discussion with ESPN's Pam Shriver, whose commentary he could hear while she reported from the stands.Michael Russell, the 32-year-old from Houston, won his first Grand Slam singles match since the 2008 Australian Open. Russell, ranked No. 101, took care of Pere Riba-Madrid 6-3, 7-6 (1), 2-6, 7-6 (1) to advance to a second-round match against Fabio Fognini, a surprise winner over No. 8 seed Fernando Verdasco.
"It'll be the battle of the little fast guys," Russell said, laughing. "It's definitely a surprise. At 35, I'll be peaking."
Americans Vania King and John Isner will each play a deciding set when play resumes Wednesday. King is tied at one set-all with 24th-seeded Daniela Hantuchova, while Isner and Nicolas Mahut split their first four sets.
Late night at SW19
Although the tennis sometimes drifts past midnight at the Australian Open and U.S. Open, the Euro Slams are refreshingly predictable. When the sun goes down, play ends.
At least that used to be the case at the All England Club. When they installed the 80 million-pound retractable roof over Centre Court a year ago, club officials suggested it would usually be implemented when the weather turned foul.
On a crisp, clear Monday evening around 8:35 p.m., Novak Djokovic and Olivier Rochus were told to relax for a half hour or so while the roof was closed after they played three sets. When the air-management system started functioning, they went back at it.
Djokovic, the No. 3 seed, came back from a one-set deficit twice to defeat Rochus 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. The match concluded at 10:58 p.m. and was officially the latest-ending match ever at Wimbledon.
Tournament officials said that closing the roof to complete a match on Centre Court "for reasons of light as well as rain" was appropriate. In the end, that timeout seemed to hurt Rochus, who was a set away from upsetting Djokovic.
"It is all part of the sport, and you have to deal with it," Djokovic said. "I think the break kind of helped me a little bit, because I didn't feel great at that moment on the court. So to have a little half an hour of the break and just relax and focus and reset my game and my mind was helpful."
Grand Slam singles wins (11)
The ESPN.com contest is off to a great start. With only Juan Carlos Ferrero left to complete his match, the former Grand Slam singles champions won 11 of their 13 matches in the first round.
Novak Djokovic versus Taylor Dent: By the time the No. 3-seeded Serb had gone the distance against Olivier Rochus under the lights on Monday night, Dent was probably already asleep. A nice, athletic matchup here, as Dent -- always moving forward -- says he's trying to channel Mark Philippoussis, the 2003 finalist here.
ESPN.com prediction: Djokovic in four