The streaming series of shots came from close range, wide angles and virtually every area of the Centre Court. Maria Sharapova seldom seemed to notice any of them.
As photographers and fans snapped away at two of tennis most photogenic players, a fiercely focused Sharapova was so riveted on the ball throughout today's third-round showdown with Daniela Hantuchova it looked like she was searching for stray strands of felt as each shot approached. Playing picture-perfect tennis for much of the match, the 13th-seeded Russian ripped 25 winners and won six consecutive games to close out an impressive 6-3, 6-1 conquest of Hantuchova.
It was a win worth framing.
In producing perhaps the best performance by any woman in the field during this Wimbledon fortnight, Sharapova surged into the fourth round for the second straight year and made a strong statement that she is a championship contender.
The final score doesn't accurately reflect the finality with which Sharapova dominated this match.
The 17-year-old Sharapova was always several steps faster and typically a shot better than the 2002 Wimbledon quarterfinalist. Movement has never been Hantuchova's best asset, but Sharapova not only beat Hantuchova to the ball, she beat her in all phases of the game.
The Sharapova serve set the tone for the match. Launching her lean frame up and out into the court, Sharapova slammed five aces, won 27 of her 29 first-serve points and did not face a break point in the match. Sharapova, who dropped just eight points on serve in the match, consistently caught the corners of the service box with deep deliveries that handcuffed Hantuchova.
Clad in similar sheer white Nike dresses that clung to their frames, the long-legged duo both came to court dressed for success and it didn't take long for Sharapova to separate herself from the woman who beat her in their lone prior meeting.
Pace is a preferred ingredient for both players, but Sharapova's power and speed provided her with a decided advantage and her ability to hit on the run resulted in several stunning winners. Even when she was stretched out wide, Sharapova still came up with strong shots.
Serving to stay in the opening set at 2-5, Hantuchova drilled a deep drive into the corner and was beginning to walk away in anticipation of the next point when a streaking Sharapova sprinted to her her left, swiftly switched her racquet to her left hand and whacked a left-handed forehand winner crosscourt that landed inside the sideline. A surprised Hantuchova shook her head and smiled at the spectacular shot, but by then it was clear the Slovak couldn't shake Sharapova.
In the next game, Sharapova showed off her agility while dancing backward to retrieve a deep Hantuchova return she flicked a forehand winner down the line off her back foot to reach set point at 40-0. Stepping up to the baseline, Sharapova smacked a second serve that rattled the racquet in Hantuchova's hand and bounced harmlessly to the side of the court as Sharapova walked to her court-side seat with a one-set lead.
The 21-year-old Hantuchova held to open the second set, but it proved to be the last lead she would hold as Sharapova simply overwhelmed her the rest of the way. An ace down the middle gave the blonde baseliner a match point and she closed out the one hour, one-minute triumph when Hantuchova netted a backhand.
Sharapova's success on grass and her model good looks have provoked comparisons to another striking Russian "ova", 1997 Wimbledon semifinalist Anna Kournikova. But while tennis is just a photo-op for Kournikova now, Sharapova competes like a player who sees the big picture and envisions herself maintaining a prominent place in it.
Today's third-round exit of second-seeded Anastasia Myskina means 31st-seeded Amy Frazier stands between Sharapova and her first major quarterfinal. Should she win that match, Sharapova would play either 11th-seeded Ai Sugiyama or Tamarine Tanasugarn for a spot in the semifinals.
Earlier this week, former Wimbledon winner Lindsay Davenport, who could face Sharapova in the semifinals, helped the young Russian locate the locker room for the high seeds. Based on the way she played today, Sharapova may not need much help to find her way to the final four.
"I really want to win the tournament. If it's not this year, I want to win next year," Sharapova said. "I just want to win it. It's my goal. And I'm here, I'm here to win it."