LONDON - Give Maria Sharapova credit for honesty.
Before Wimbledon began, she acknowledged that a recent comeback from shoulder surgery made it too much to ask for her to contend seriously for a second title at the All England Club.
Sharapova was right: She didn't even make it out of the second round. Playing poorly at the start and finish Wednesday, the 2004 Wimbledon champion lost 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 to 45th-ranked Gisela Dulko of Argentina.
"Losses are tough - more here than at any other tournament," said Sharapova, who double-faulted seven times in the final set. "I would have liked to have a longer season before coming here."
With easy victories for past champions Serena Williams and Roger Federer, Sharapova's early exit counted as the most surprising development on Day 3 at the grass-court Grand Slam tournament - unless, that is, you count the weather.
The temperature was in the 20s C, the sky was bright blue, the clouds were scarce and, for the third day in a row, not a single drop of rain fell. The only use the All England Club is making of Centre Court's fancy, new retractable roof is shifting it slightly to provide some shade for those seated in the Royal Box.
"It's good that it gets a little bit of a workout," club spokesman Johnny Perkins said.
Sharapova's opponent worried about being overwhelmed by the setting: Dulko's only previous visit to Centre Court was when she sat in the stands to watch a match. This time, Dulko was wielding a racket and trying to beat someone who not only has been ranked No. 1 and owns three major championships, but also won their two previous meetings by scores of 6-0, 6-1, then 6-1, 6-1.
Dulko, meanwhile, has only once been to the fourth round at a Grand Slam tournament.
So who would have expected Sharapova to be the wobbly one?
Dulko claimed nine of the first 11 games, changing speeds effectively while Sharapova's errors piled up.
"It took me a while to get going. It's a little too late to start picking yourself up when you're down a set and 3-love," said Sharapova, who had an operation on her right shoulder in October and was off the tour for nine-plus months.
That absence dropped her out of the top 100, but by going 10-3 before Wimbledon - including 6-0 in three-set matches - Sharapova climbed to 60th, and she was seeded 24th based on past success at the tournament. But she was tentative on some shots, just plain off-kilter on others, flubbing some sitters and simple volleys.
"I don't really know if that's because I haven't played," Sharapova said. "When I've had those situations before, those balls would be pieces of cake."
Still, Sharapova did win seven games in a row to take the second set and go ahead in the third.
"She's a fighter," Dulko noted.
The velocity on Sharapova's serves dropped as they played past two hours, and she kept double-faulting, ceding momentum. Dulko, though, was nervous as she sat for the changeover before serving at 5-4 in the third.
"My legs were shaking," she said. "I told myself, 'Calm down."'
With Sharapova's stroke-accompanying shrieks rising in octave and volume, she kept saving match points in that game, four in all. When Dulko shanked a forehand, it created a break point - and she was hoping for more mistakes by Sharapova.
"I was thinking, 'Please, hit it out. Please, hit it out,"' Dulko said.
Talk about mind over matter. Sharapova put a backhand into the net, pushed a forehand wide and then sailed a forehand long, ending her second consecutive second-round loss at Wimbledon.
How long might it be until she regains the form that made her champion here at age 17 and later carried her to the 2006 U.S. Open and 2008 Australian Open titles?
"I don't really know. I mean, I'd honestly tell you if I knew," Sharapova said. "It's just one of those questions where I don't really have an answer."
One player who might benefit from Sharapova's loss: Williams, the 2002-03 Wimbledon champion, who could have faced the Russian in the quarter-finals. Williams moved into the third round by beating Jarmila Groth 6-2, 6-1.
Eighth-seeded Victoria Azarenka had even less trouble Wednesday, defeating Ioana Raluca Olaru 6-0, 6-0, but No. 16 Zheng Jie - a semifinalist last year - lost to Daniela Hantuchova 6-3, 7-5. Another 2008 semifinalist, No. 18 Rainer Schuettler, was the only seeded man to lose Wednesday, eliminated by Dudi Sela of Israel 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-2.
Federer rarely has to put in extra effort at Wimbledon - he's won 42 of his past 43 matches at the All England Club, and 35 of those were in straight sets - and Wednesday he beat 42nd-ranked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain 6-2, 6-2, 6-4.
Federer's pregnant wife, Mirka, skipped this one.
"She's just not feeling 100 per cent. She only felt 95 per cent, so we decided it's better if she takes it easy, instead of sitting in the sun, maybe feeling worse the next day," said Federer, trying to win a sixth Wimbledon championship and record-breaking 15th Grand Slam title overall.
As for Centre Court's new top?
"I'm definitely looking forward to my first time under the roof. I don't know if it's going to be this year," Federer said. "But I'll stick around."
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