Chris McGrath: Sharapova hints at earlier glories in regal progress

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The Independent Online

Over on Centre Court, they had to make do with the monarch. Here on Court One, we had an authentic princess of sport. Mind you, there were times when Maria Sharapova's 6-1, 6-4 defeat of Ioana Raluca Olaru had its own ceremonial quality, straying between the ritual and the perfunctory. Such, however, are the familiar hazards of the women's tour these days, above all on this surface. By dusk, indeed, Serena Williams would annihilate Sharapova's compatriot, Anna Chakvetadze 6-0, 6-1, in 47 merciless minutes.

Over the past decade, only Sharapova and Amélie Mauresmo have intruded on the reign of the Williams sisters here, and injury and retirement respectively have since compounded a chronic lack of depth among the rest. What a pity, then, that Sharapova – as 16th seed – is on track to meet Serena as early as the fourth round. It was Serena, of course, whom she overwhelmed in the 2004 final, when aged just 17. Sharapova's has since become the most lucrative career in all female sport, lately extending to an eight-year, $70m [£46m] endorsement deal with Nike. But her flesh, however divine to the marketing men, has not proved immune to corporeal wear and tear. Her last two visits here, either side of a shoulder operation, were a washout.

This time, however, she has arrived on a steadily ascending graph line – recently spiked by a serve of 121mph at Birmingham, the fastest of her career – and this proved another highly constructive workout.

Whether daunted by her opponent or their environment, her Romanian opponent contributed precious little to a 32-minute opening set, and promptly yielded an early break in the second, too. Olaru, ranked 114, had lost 11 out of 12 games prior to this tournament and her choppy service action proved inadequate to stem Sharapova's aggression. Soon a post-prandial torpor so pervaded the sultry afternoon that even the officials seemed to doze off, Sharapova twice winning Hawk-Eye appeals that exposed the line judges as wildly inaccurate.

To her credit, Olaru did pull herself back level with some stylish passes in the eighth game, but it proved that both players had simply become complacent in the result. Sharapova promptly won the next two games to finish the match, and reproached herself afterwards for that fleeting inattention. "I just kind of stopped in the middle of the second set, and let her back in," she admitted.

All in all, however, this was a plausible glimpse of the Sharapova who first emerged here as such an unbridled delight. On those occasions when she did reach the net, especially, instinct and execution alike proved so pristine that you implored her not to take on the challenges ahead with baseline power alone. Her win ratio at the net was 20:23.

Asked about her fitness, she disarmingly intimated that 23 was the height of decrepitude. "We're professional athletes," she said. "We don't wake up in the morning and say: 'Everything feels perfect.' Maybe when we're very young. But at this point in our careers, it's impossible to feel fit. Physically, fitness-wise, I feel really good – a lot better than I did last year, when I was sitting here."

But the only pain she acknowledged now was the memory of her exit at the equivalent stage last year. "I was on the plane the next day," she said. "I really thought about that, especially towards the end of the match. There was no way I was going home. I'm here to contend, and I'm here to win the tournament."

Serena may have her own views about that and likewise, no doubt, Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, who beat Daniela Hantuchova 1-6, 6-2, 6-4 and stands between Sharapova and the No 1 seed – whose supremacy over Chakvetadze bordered on the grotesque. She won 27 out of 31 points on her first serve, and walloped 27 winners.

A potential semi-final opponent for both, meanwhile, remains Caroline Wozniacki. The 19-year-old Dane once won the junior title here, and last year reached her first Grand Slam final in the US Open. Though the Queen had left Centre Court before Wozniacki's match with Kai-Chen Chang they had been introduced earlier in the day and she produced a buoyant display to win 6-4, 6-3.