Sharapova on long road back to the summit

Former champion benefits from having a settled support team as she puts her troubles behind her
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The Independent Online

Maria Sharapova was hardly troubled by Klara Zakopalova as she won 6-2 6-3 yesterday, dispatching the 29-year-old Czech in one hour, 19 minutes in their third-round match on Court 2. The Russian, who won the Wimbledon title in 2004 aged only 17, is strongly fancied to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish on Saturday, and few would bet against a player who appears to be coming into form at just the right time.

The No 5 seed, ranked six in the world, started in strong form, hitting a succession of winners past her opponent. She raced through the first set in barely 30 minutes, breaking a nervous-looking Zakopalova in her first service game and then taking a 4-1 lead.

Sharapova's serve was variable, however, as she was mixing 100mph-plus aces with loose deliveries, but her groundstrokes were more solid and she was hitting more winners than the Czech.

Sharapova certainly looked more comfortable than she had in Friday's dogged straight-sets win over the 17-year-old Briton Laura Robson, but even so she was still struggling for consistency against Zakopalova,hitting 21 unforced errors and four double faults in the match.

In the second set Zakopalova, ranked 35 in the world, made more of a match of it, although there were few rallies of any note, but the Czech managed to get her delicious forehand working, sending a few zingers cross-court and down the line to pass the Russian.

She broke Sharapova in the third game and held serve to go 3-1 up, but that setback spurred Sharapova into a higher gear. Despite Zakopalova twice holding break points, she did not manage to convert them and Sharapova won five games in a row thanks to a few aces and terrific shots delivered from the forecourt. It was with a beautifully taken forehand down the line that she won the match.

Sharapova, the former world No 1, appears to be fully recovered from the shoulder problems that had caused uneven form after she won the Australian Open in 2008. She started working with a new coach, Thomas Hogstedt, before this year's Australian Open and the relationship has already paid dividends; she had her career-best result on her least favourite surface, clay, at the French Open, reaching the semi-finals and losing to the eventual winner Li Na of China.

Her personal life has changed, too, as she is now engaged to Slovenian basketball player Sasha Vujacic, who plays in the NBA for the New Jersey Nets and at 6ft 7in is taller even than the statuesque Russian, who is 6ft 2in.

Sporting a whopper of a diamond on her left hand (no doubt bought at Tiffany & Co, one of Sharapova's sponsors), the richest sportswoman in the world was in relaxed mood in her post-match press conference.

She was asked about what she had learned about her fiancé's sport, which she had never previously expressed an interest in, and replied drily: "There's no doubt I've watched more basketball in the last couple of years than I have in all my life. I think it's a lot easier to play a sport than to watch. It's tougher to be on the sidelines. That's what I've learnt."

Because it is the basketball off-season, Vujacic has been travelling with Sharapova in Europe since before the French Open, and she said this has made her more settled. "It's been really nice," she said, "because when he moved to Jersey [from Los Angeles, where he played for the Lakers], we didn't get to see each other that much. This trip has kind of made up for it. We've really enjoyed it."

She added that having a sportsman as a partner helps her game. "We've obviously been at tournaments together and we're competitive, so we're doing everything in order for me to win tennis matches."

Making up Team Sharapova with Vujacic and Hogstedt is her hitting partner, Cecil Volchkov, and a full-time physiotherapist, both brought in by her new coach. "It's great to have a consistent team," she said. "But it's also a fresh team for me and I think that's played a big part of this year so far."

Sharapova, who has not reached the Wimbledon semi-finals since 2006, is now one of three former champion in the women's draw, alongside Venus and Serena Williams. "It's good to have them playing here again," she said. "And it's good for women's tennis they are back. I think it's wonderful that we have so many champions in the draw because when you're playing Grand Slam events you want to be competing against the best."

Sharapova's opponent in the last 16 is China's Peng Shuai, who beat Melinda Czink of Hungary 6-2 7-6. She said of her: "She has a great game for grass, she hits really flat and stays quite low. She is playing some of the best tennis of her career."

But Sharapova, as befits a three-time Grand Slam winner, is not taking anything for granted. When asked by a journalist to predict how quickly she would beat her Chinese opponent, seeded 20, Sharapova dismissed him with a curt: "That's an irrelevant question."