An afterthought coming in, Maria Sharapova exits Indian Wells quietly

Since reaching the third round of the Australian Open, Maria Sharapova has dropped her past two first-round matches. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- In front of a very sparse crowd on a day lacking much star power, it was hard to believe one of the most famous athletes in the sport was actually on the court. Only a smattering of applause and the occasional, "Come on, Maria!" were heard. It had the energy and intensity of a qualifying match.

But in a way, it was fitting. Maria Sharapova came into Indian Wells as an afterthought. Her return to this event was overshadowed by the eagerly anticipated comeback of Serena Williams, who gave birth in September, and Victoria Azarenka, who was playing her first event since last July because of a fierce custody battle over her son.

Sharapova never really gave the few people in the stands much to cheer for anyway. On Wednesday, she fell 6-4, 6-4 to Naomi Osaka in the opening round in the desert.

Looking overpowered from the start, Sharapova failed to win a single point in the first game and dropped the first three overall. And when she did start to come alive, the 20-year-old Osaka, who has wins over Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber, never seemed intimidated by the far more experienced opponent in their first career meeting.

When Sharapova stormed back in the second set after being down 3-1 to even it at four games apiece, Osaka stayed composed. After the match, Osaka seemed happy about the win and confessed during her on-court interview she had "watched [Sharapova] since I was little" and knew what to expect. Sharapova is a five-time Grand Slam winner and former No. 1. Until recently, she was the highest-paid female athlete in the world. Despite those accolades, she was all but an afterthought this week.

Now 30, Sharapova is a two-time winner at Indian Wells but has fallen to No. 41 in the world. She hasn't played here since 2015 because of a 15-month suspension for using a banned substance. She returned to the tour with great fanfare last April and during her impressive run to the fourth round at the US Open. But it hasn't been the same since.

Sharapova didn't seem particularly concerned about her play Wednesday or lack of attention when speaking to the media after the loss. Oddly, she was jovial and at one point joked about giving candy to whoever asked her the best question.

"I've known that since the comeback that I have to work to get myself to be in a seeded position, and to get what they call a better draw, all those things," Sharapova said. "That takes work, that takes time, I'm not afraid of any of that.

"Of course, I wanted to do well here, and not just because I won this event a couple of times, but that's the mentality I have as a former champion, as someone that's a competitor that wants to do well and compete well at an event no matter what event it is or where it is."

As she's doing just fine off the court, with a best-selling book, endorsement deals with Nike, Porsche and others, and even her own successful candy line (which is what she offered to the media, of course), we can see why maybe she's not overly worried about one bad tournament.

As Sharapova said, she's truly happy to play after having to spend so much time off the tour during her suspension.

"All I know is that this year I'm competing and I'm playing, and last year, I wasn't in that position, so I have a lot to be grateful for when I walk out to that tunnel and onto to that court," Sharapova said.

It's just too bad her positivity won't be around for anyone to see at Indian Wells any more this year.