Maria Sharapova received an early challenge from Alison Riske on Saturday before finding another gear and earning herself a spot in the fourth round of Wimbledon with another very strong showing (6-3, 6-0).
Sharapova has looked supremely focused coming off her triumph in the French Open. She cruised through the first two rounds while losing no more than two games in any set en route to quick victories over Samantha Murray and Timea Bacsinszky.
Wimbledon was the site of Sharapova's first Grand Slam title back in 2004. She's struggled to match that success in recent trips to the event, however. An appearance in the final three years ago marks the only time she's advanced beyond the fourth round since 2007.
Vivienne Christie of the tournament's official site passed along comments from the Russian superstar, who admitted the rapid transition from clay to grass is tricky to deal with.
"Because it's so quick from one (surface) to another, the first couple of matches are really crucial in just working on so many things as a grass court player, just trying to make that transition and trying to do it as quick as possible," Sharapova said.
It didn't take long for Riske to show she was a more viable threat on the surface than Sharapova's first two opponents. She came out aggressive on the return, and it paid off with an immediate break serve, which is part of the No. 5 seed's game that can come and go from match to match.
Former NFL star Shannon Sharpe was impressed with the American's start:
Let's go A. Riske. Nice 1st break of serve vs Sharapova. Keep it going. #USA— shannon sharpe (@ShannonSharpe) June 28, 2014
Riske did keep it going, as she was able to consolidate the break by holding in her first service game. Her flat, hard backhand was causing serious issues for Sharapova, who started trying to counter power with power, leading to some unforced errors.
The lead didn't last long, though. A highly competitive game with Riske serving at 3-2 ended with a double fault to get the set back on even terms. It's tough enough to beat a player of Sharapova's caliber without those type of mistakes.
Furthermore, those type of errors tend to snowball, and that's exactly what happened. The five-time major champion was able to start building some momentum after getting the break, and Riske's form dropped markedly from the early going.
Sharapova scored a second straight break for an opportunity to serve for the set and didn't let it slip away. After getting broken in the opening game, she didn't face another break point for the rest of the set, and it's tough to beat her when her serve is working that well.
Both players had nine unforced errors, but Sharapova had five more winners and did a better job of defending her second serve to take the set 6-3 after falling behind 3-1.
Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated used a play on words to note the turning tide:
Sharapova now mitigating riske and starting to control match— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) June 28, 2014
By the second set, any positive vibes Riske had built up with her strong play in the first few games had been completely eliminated. Sharapova started controlling the points with heavy shots off both wings, and the Pennsylvania native didn't have an answer.
It's a common theme when going up against top players in both draws.
Who should be the Wimbledon favorite?
The first match on Centre Court saw Mikhail Kukushkin take the first set from Rafael Nadal before Sharapova's fellow French Open champion dominated the next three. It's possible to spark thoughts of an upset, but maintaining that level of play long enough to accomplish it is extremely difficult.
Quite simply, after that double fault by Riske to level the match in the first set, it was no contest. Sharapova never relented from that point forward and was the superior player despite play from Riske that may have been good enough to challenge a less accomplished player.
The fifth seed had 13 winners and just three errors in the second set. Combine that with a more steady serve, and there are only a select few players who are capable of challenging Sharapova when she's playing that well.
Riske isn't at that stage of her career quite yet, but the future remains bright.
SI Tennis noted Sharapova won 11 straight games to close out the match:
From1-3 down Maria Sharapova wins 11 straight games to finish the match, beats Alison Riske 63 60 to advance to the fourth round.— SI Tennis (@SI_Tennis) June 28, 2014
Wimbledon provided a look at the final point:
Looking ahead, Sharapova will play the winner of the third-round match between No. 9 seed Angelique Kerber and No. 24 seed Kirsten Flipkens. She will be the clear favorite to advance regardless of who wins that match with a 4-1 record against Kerber and a 5-0 mark against Flipkens.
The match everybody is looking forward to is the potential faceoff with Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. That's an encounter that would feature championship-quality tennis, but the winner would still need to win a couple of more matches to win the title.
Sharapova can't think that far ahead. She must focus on the next round and hope to keep her outstanding form intact.