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Maria Sharapova's French Open return ends in muted fashion to Garbine Muguruza

PARIS -- Maria Sharapova's first French Open in three years came to a muted conclusion Wednesday. She made decent inroads in the tournament that turned her away last year but clearly viewed it as incremental progress after a flat, straight-sets loss to Spain's ascendant Garbine Muguruza.

"On paper, it's a step in the right direction," Sharapova said. "Coming into this part of the year, I was losing a few first-round matches, matches that I wanted to be winning, of course. To have had the victories that I have had, to have the results that I have, obviously moving a step in the right direction. But today was certainly not one of those steps."

Unranked after serving a 15-month doping suspension that ended in the spring of 2017, Sharapova received much-debated wild cards to several WTA events but not Roland Garros, her first major since returning and the only venue where she has won two Grand Slam championships.

She played her way back into the top 50 earlier this year and earned a seed (28) here in a major for the first time since her forced hiatus. While Sharapova wasn't prominent in the conversation to add a third title to her résumé, she looked as if she belonged in the second week, which ended with rising commotion around a scheduled fourth-round clash against arch-nemesis Serena Williams.

Williams withdrew shortly before the match with a pectoral muscle injury, a moment Sharapova said she found briefly startling but not destabilizing.

"I hadn't had a withdrawal in -- I don't know how long ... maybe like six years or something," Sharapova said. "So I didn't really know what to do. Is there a Lucky Loser coming? No, we're deep in the tournament. I was, like, 'OK, next round.' That's just kind of how you handle it. But, yeah, I think she made everyone wait a little bit."

The abrupt walkover leapfrogged Sharapova onto center court against Muguruza, who became a double Grand Slam event champion (2016 French Open, 2017 Wimbledon) during Sharapova's absence.

Thoroughly and clinically outplayed by Muguruza in every respect, Sharapova looked uncomfortable and off-balance for most of her brief stint on court and had a particularly deflating second set in which she logged two winners to 15 unforced errors. The Russian won only five of 26 second-serve points in the face of Muguruza's elegant 6-2, 6-1 stampede.

"She was the aggressive one," Sharapova said. "She had a lot more depth in the ball. I think my shots were a lot more forced. I just didn't feel free ... didn't have the rhythm."

No. 3 seed Muguruza professed not to know that she could overtake current world No. 1 Simona Halep of Romania by winning the Thursday semifinal. She had a brief reign in the top slot last September, lifted largely by her Wimbledon title campaign.

Muguruza has had a swift and untroubled path to that intersection thus far. She said she expected an intense match against Sharapova, and, in a way, it was -- intensely straightforward and efficient. Muguruza hasn't dropped a set and has spent a combined total of 90 minutes on court in her last two matches (one shortened by her fourth-round opponent, who quit due to injury after only two games) -- less time than Halep and Germany's Angelique Kerber logged in their first two sets Wednesday.

"When you play and you win against an old-time player with a lot of experience, it gives you a lot of trust," said Muguruza, who at 24 is seven years Sharapova's junior. "And these matches are the way you need to travel to get to the end of the tournament."

Sharapova might prefer to be described as a veteran rather than an antique, but the analytics that matter to her have nothing to do with birthday candles at this point. Watching her ranking rise is "somewhat of a reward for the efforts, whether they are small or large," she said. "You have to take it. You have to appreciate that.

"I don't want to erase it completely -- there are a lot of things that I need to look at and face and work towards after this match," Sharapova added. "When I'm talking about progression or looking back at the weeks, I think there are a lot of good things, like the way my body has handled the long matches that I have played, the back-to-backs.

"To come out of these weeks and feel fairly healthy is a great thing."