New York:Maria Sharapova can feel her confidence grow and her overall skills returning more every day, serving notice to US Open foes that her shoulder surgery woes are gone and she is a true title threat.
The 22-year-old Russian beauty took just 73 minutes Thursday to rout US teen Christina McHale 6-2, 6-1, and advance to the third round of a draw suddenly wide open thanks to several seeded upset victims.
"I feel like the belief in the game, the confidence, is coming back," Sharapova said.
Former world number one Sharapova hit half of her first serves. She had only one ace against seven double faults but won 19-of-24 points on first serves.
"The goal is to keep going after the serve. I did a good job of that," said Sharapova. "I served pretty good. I was trying to go for bigger serves and try to get my percentage up a little bit but it still wasn't as high as I wanted.
Three-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova, the 2006 US Open winner, returned in May after a nine-month injury layoff and has spent four months building her game to a peak for the Flushing Meadows fortnight.
"I'm playing a lot better than I was when I first got back," Sharapova said. "In every match, I learned from each situation. That's certainly going to help me - if not here, then for the future, for next year."
The toughest thing to regain after the layoff has not been the serve but the instinct to make proper shot selections, a talent best honed in matches.
"I think the one thing that I learned is when you find yourself in the middle of the match, your shot selection goes, well, haywire. And I think I've been able to get that back," Sharapova said.
US teen Melanie Oudin, who upset Russian fourth seed Elena Dementieva, will be Sharapova's next opponent in a draw half that also lost Serbian fifth seed Jelena Jankovic. Sharapova does not see her path getting any easier, however.
"Just because other people are struggling doesn't make me a bigger contender," Sharapova said. "Other people's struggles don't make my draw or anything else in my path to a Grand Slam easier."
Russians Nadia Petrova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and world number one Dinara Safina would be in Sharapova's path if form is restored to the draw.
But first, she must get past Oudin. The American defeated Dementieva, who beat Sharapova in a US Open tuneup final at Toronto last month, and would love to play giant-killer again before a home crowd.
"I saw the way Elena played. I thought she could have done a few things better," Sharapova said. "When Melanie had to step it up, she certainly did. In times when she could have made errors, she came up with some really good shots.
"I mean, I've got a tough round ahead of me, also somebody that I've never played against before, someone that's going to come out, I'm sure she's going to swing and have nothing to lose.
"But I'm looking forward to that."