When Maria Sharapova returned to the WTA Tour last spring following a 15-month suspension, the five-time Grand Slam champion knew it wasn’t going to be easy. She’d made successful comebacks before, of course, from the shoulder injury of 2008, the hip injury of 2013. But she was 30 now, and the game was getting younger, faster, more powerful with each passing day.
“Everyone’s working. I think maybe five, 10 years ago, you could get by with coming to a tournament and working your way into the first couple rounds,” she said. “That’s no longer the case.”
Naomi Osaka is just the kind of player Sharapova was referencing — a rising performer who at 20 has already scored Top-10 wins over the likes of Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber. And making her first appearance at the BNP Paribas Open in three years, the 41st-ranked Sharapova — a two-time champion — was knocked out by the Japanese-American in the opening round on Wednesday night at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, 6-4, 6-4.
Looking anything but intimidated in her first career matchup against the five-time Slam champ, Osaka held serve at love to open the match, then promptly broke the Russian for an early 2-0 advantage. But Sharapova would return the favor in the seventh game with a break of her own, and the match was soon level at 4-all. However, serving to stay in the set at 4-5, 15-40, Sharapova would dump a forehand into the net.
There were four consecutive service breaks in the somewhat nervy second set, with neither player able to find much in the way of rhythm. But Osaka held strong. An ill-timed double fault from Sharapova — one of six on the night — would set up a match point for Osaka 4-5, and the 5-foot-11 baseliner made the most of the opportunity, forcing her veteran foe into a backhand error to seal the one-hour and 35-minute contest.
“She’s a rising star,” said Sharapova. “She’s been playing really good. She’s fast, aggressive, hits deep, big serve. You just have to get used to the pace and where it’s coming from. She goes for her shots.”
“Of course, I would have wanted to do well here — not just because I’ve won this event a couple of times, but because that’s the mentality that I have as a former champion, as someone who’s a competitor that wants to so well at the event,” she added.
For Osaka, it was a win over a player she grew up watching dozens of times.
“I just remember being really impressed by her,” she said. “You would never know what she was thinking because she never really got upset or anything. She was always fighting and I thought that was really cool. I actually took a lot from her and tried to learn from her.”
Sharapova, second only to Lindsay Davenport in career wins in Indian Wells with 38, looked a bit rusty against Osaka, winning just 23 of 36 (64 percent) first-serve points. She was aiming to become the first three-time champion in the tournament’s history, having won titles in 2006 and 2013.
The Sascha Bajin-coached Osaka, who was coming off her career-best showing at a major — a Round of 16 finish at the Australian Open — will next face No. 31 seed and 2014 runner-up Agnieska Radwanska of Poland.