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Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Sharapova's image takes a back seat

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- You can't often say that Maria Sharapova isn't getting enough attention. Winning Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 2004 landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated, while Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had to win multiple majors and play one of the greatest matches of all time before receiving the same real estate.

But the former champ has been largely overshadowed these past few days by the return of the Williams sisters, particularly Serena, who is in the same half of the draw. The sight of Serena has sobbing with happiness after winning her first-round match garnered much of the attention so far, signifying the end of a disastrous year that involved two surgeries for cuts on her feet, blood clots in her lung that required an emergency trip to the hospital and more surgery to treat related bleeding under the skin of her abdomen.

Sharapova's comeback story is not quite as dramatic, just a long and winding road back from shoulder surgery. Her good form during the culmination of the clay-court season continued on the grass when she produced a decisive opening win over Anna Chakvetadze on Tuesday. It was a stronger statement than Serena's up-and-down three-set win, though there's still a long way to go before their potential clash in the semifinals.

And though Sharapova's win wasn't as emotional as Serena's, going on to take the Wimbledon title would also have plenty of symbolic significance for her.

"I've said it since I came back from my injury, that if I could win another Grand Slam, it would mean more than the previous ones that I have," Sharapova said coming into the tournament. "You basically start from zero. You know, you try to get yourself to a level where you can compete with the top players, beating them day in, day out. Yeah, it's a long process.

"If I do achieve that, if it's here -- if it's somewhere else -- I think it would be my biggest achievement in my career."

This is her best chance so far. Grass suits the Russian, allowing her to dictate points more easily than on clay, her worst surface. "Yeah, it's always good, like I said, to get back on the grass," she said last week. "I'm improving my tennis. I'm playing a lot better. I played a lot of matches on clay, which I really wanted to do."

Her run of 10 straight wins ended in the French Open semifinals, exacerbated by a poor serving performance that featured 10 double faults. Until then, her delivery had at last begun to resemble the pre-surgery weapon of old. Her prospects here depend very much on how that shot holds up. She converted a solid 68 percent of her first services in her first-round match and produced a non-disastrous four double faults. The rest of her game was also on target, yielding 24 winners to just 11 unforced errors.

There's other element coinciding with the upswing in her performance: The presence of fiancée and NBA player Sasha Vujacic, who has been accompanying her to tournaments since the New Jersey Nets' season ended.

Federer continuing remarkable resilience

Roger Federer sailed through his first-round match and is not expected to be troubled in the second round against Adrian Mannarino. But the rest of Federer's playing generation looks a lot more bruised and battered at Wimbledon. How does the Swiss manage to stay so injury-free?

"He doesn't even look like he's trying, so how are you going to get hurt?" Andy Roddick quipped.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer's fortunate string of good health is an aberration among players who have been around a long time.

Federer says it's not as easy as he makes it look. "I think it has helped me with injuries, yes, that my game is somewhat casual," he acknowledged. "But in a good way, because I had to work on my casualness.

"I worked extremely hard on my fitness and on my mental part of the game. All those things eventually came together, and I started to be able to glide around the court with little effort and be very explosive."

Federer has also surrounded himself with a full fitness team and managed his training and schedule carefully, making his own judgments about when and where to play in the face of endless offers and occasional criticism about his choices. In the end, however, the results speak for themselves: Federer has never retired during a match, a record matched only by James Blake among longtime active pros. And he has withdrawn before a match only once, ironically against Blake.

"Look, I've had injuries along the way," Federer said. "Here 10 years ago, actually, when I played [Pete] Sampras and [Tim] Henman, I was injured on my groin.

"I twisted my ankle, I've had other back issues, some other problems throughout my career, which is completely normal."

Part of his track record reflects meticulous precautions -- after the ankle problem, for example, he has always taped his ankles before each match and even each hitting session, to avoid any repeats of that incident. Part of it is luck.

"It never really happened in a time during a Grand Slam or maybe a huge important match," he said. "Many matches during my career I've had pain and issues and whatever, but they don't affect me to the extent that I can't walk on court except once against Blake in Paris. I've been fortunate and smart over the years. Today I know my body very well, how much it can take and what it cannot take."

Day to day, there are now more niggles to manage, but in many ways the 29-year-old Federer looks as strong and fit as ever. It's a striking contrast with contemporaries like Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Carlos Ferrero, who have broken down physically over the past year or two.

Injured Hewitt could still test Soderling

Hewitt, who takes on Robin Soderling in an intriguing Thursday matchup, has had three surgeries in the past two years. The latest was an operation on his foot in March, a problem he aggravated in his first tournament back two weeks ago.

Hewitt came through a tough first-round match against Kei Nishikori and freely admits he wouldn't be playing if it wasn't Wimbledon. "You know, this is what I play for," he said. "I've had to try and block it out as much as possible and still get on with practice and doing all the right things to prepare myself as well as possible."

Despite the injury, he has also signed up for doubles to get in extra match practice after missing three months because of surgery. The Aussie battler will have his work cut out for him against the fifth-seeded Soderling, but grass is now his most effective surface, and he has the counterpunching skills to make the big-hitting Swede move and play long rallies. If the foot holds up.

Djokovic tries to extend new streak

Novak Djokovic, now on a winning streak of one, will look to extend it to two when he plays his second-round match Thursday. The Serb insists he's ready to pick up again after the end of his 43-match unbeaten run at the French Open, and his efficient display in the first round backed up his words.

"It's incredible, the amount of matches I had won in a row," Djokovic said. "It was definitely surprising for myself, as well. And, obviously, with the seven titles that I've won in a row, you know, I got more attention.

"So when this streak ended in Paris, it was kind of a relief as well because, you know, it's been a very, very successful five, six months for me, but very long as well, and exhausting. I've played so many matches. So I needed some time to relax, and I'm happy to see that I'm playing well again, that I'm mentally really fresh to have more success."

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.