LONDON // Maria Sharapova was making pre-Wimbledon noises about being back to her best and feeling confident about the possibility of repeating her surprise 2004 triumph here. Well, she is back, but not at her best on the evidence of her stuttering display yesterday against a feisty Austrian opponent in Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, ranked 51 places below her at 68 in the world.
Sharapova, who took nearly two hours to secure her 7-5, 6-3 passage, will need to be at her best from now on. She faces the defending champion Serena Williams tomorrow in what promises to be a fascinating fourth-round confrontation. The younger of the Williams sisters was also the title holder six years ago when the then 17-year-old Sharapova sprung from relative obscurity to global fame by stunning the formidable American.
Sharapova, world No 1 until her tennis future was cast into jeopardy by serious shoulder trouble which eventually required surgery, is relishing her eighth confrontation with Serena, despite losing five of the previous seven, including the last four. "I love playing her," Sharapova said. "If there is a challenge ahead of you it is definitely playing against her and I enjoy that." Sharapova suggested that she capitalised on her unknown quantity to upset Serena in that 2004 final. That will not be a factor this time.
"I think Serena and I know each other's game pretty well now," she said. "We haven't played in a while  but we always watch each other's matches. "She's a really big hitter and a strong server. "You really have to take your chances against her. Even if you don't have many, you've got to take advantage of what you get." That was not the case for Sharapova against Zahlavova, who played well enough at times to have caused a Court One shock and might have done so if she had enjoyed better fortune with the electronic line-judging system.
Several times the Czech player could not conceal her frustration at Hawk-Eye's decisions and in a match of countless challenges, she used up hers prematurely in each set while most of Sharapova's were upheld. Even so, a more experienced grand slam campaigner - Zahlavova has never gone beyond the third round of a major in 19 attempts - would have exploited Sharapova's frequent failure to put away routine shots, especially off the high ball.
She tended to avoid executing the orthodox overhead smash, preferring to let the ball drop to shoulder level before hitting a succession of drive volleys, many of which missed their target and cost her a string of what should have been simple points. "There are still a few improvements to be done after the injury," she said. "Things need to get better but it is tough to compare yourself now to what you were like a few years ago. This is a completely different stage of my career."
Serena finished her third round match on Centre Court before Sharapova started hers, but the likelihood of a reunion with the tall Russian was uppermost in her mind after discussing the merits of her 6-0, 7-5 victory over Dominika Cibulkova, of Slovakia. Asked whether she thought it was too early in the tournament to be facing an opponent of the calibre of Sharapova, Serena replied: "You always have to be ready for whatever comes your way. She's obviously a really good player, especially on grass, so we'll have to see."