Maria Sharapova's uninspiring start to 2014 was further dented by a disappointing loss to world number 79 Camila Giorgi. 

The Russian was unable to consistently breach the defences of her inspired opponent, who condemned Sharapova to her fourth defeat of the 2014 season.

Inspired by her unfamiliar surroundings, the Italian took advantage of the world number five's error-strewn display to record the most impressive win of her career. 

In truth, Giorgi finds herself amongst the last 16 in Indian Wells as a result of Sharapova's bewildering performance, but deserves credit for her tenacious display of consistent groundstrokes and gutsy defending. The victory is unlikely to spark the announcement of a new talent amongst women's tennis however, and Giorgi will find wins of this magnitude few and far between. 

More alarming was the enigmatic display of the defending champion, who will lose 935 ranking points when the WTA rankings are updated on Monday. A finalist in Miami 12 months ago, her stellar clay court campaign in 2013 means that the mercurial Sharapova has little opportunity to regain lost ground prior to Wimbledon.

By the time the world's tennis players assemble in London, Sharapova may not be amongst the top ten. She will be hoping that her injury-forced hiatus will bear fruit in the autumn when she will have no ranking points to defend.

So far this year, she has yet to offer major encouragement that she will be able to contest the biggest prizes. A disappointing Australian Open was followed by a poor performance at the Paris Indoors, and the 27-year-old has now failed to defend the title she claimed in the Californian desert in March 2013. 

Throughout her career, Sharapova has often played a reduced schedule, juggling off-court commitment with a busy tennis calendar. After losing in Paris in late January, Sharapova then travelled to Sochi to serve as an ambassador for the Winter Olympics, held in her hometown.

Returning to action in Indian Wells this week having spent a month off the courts has perhaps proved detrimental to the four-time Grand Slam champion. There is an argument to be had that the Russian would have been well-served by playing in either Doha or Dubai prior to the Premier Mandatory event this week.

Doubters will circle, speculating as to whether Sharapova has fully recovered from a shoulder injury which curtailed her 2013 season. This year, she has lacked her usual baseline consistency, and her groundstrokes lack ambition.

Following major surgery in 2009, Sharapova's troublesome shoulder has consistency wreaked havoc with her serve, and she has committed a large number of double faults in many matches since her return five years ago. In her matches this week, her serve has seldom looked more frail.

There are few positives to draw from an outcome such as this. The first warning signs appeared following her Wimbledon defeat, where she was beaten by lowly-ranked Michelle Larcher De Brito.

The ill-fated appointment of Jimmy Connors in August survived just one match. It showed confusion and a lack of direction. Sharapova chose Sven Groeneveld to replace Connors, but their collaboration has yet to produce significant results.

Since her return, she has looked a shadow of her former self. Despite the usual intensity and fight, she is hitting far too many baseline shots down the middle of the court, with little penetration. Whilst her movement has been impressive, she has lacked general consistency throughout and will be disappointed with her returning game this week.

The drop in rankings is unlikely to faze Sharapova, however. She will feel confident of beating the higher-ranked players should she return to full form. A fully-fit Sharapova in full flow would realistically overcome any female tennis player, with the exception of Serena Williams and perhaps Victoria Azarenka. 

It is not the first time that Sharapova has faced adversity and doubt in her career. With an ageing Serena Williams, the WTA tour need another commercial figure at the helm of the sport. Williams will not last forever, and Sharapova has a genuine opportunity to dominate once the American calls time on her glittering career. She will need to answer those doubts if she is to do just that.

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