When the Australian Open began this week the consensus was that only a Belgian could prevent Serena Williams winning the title for a fifth time. A serious rethink was under way at Melbourne Park yesterday after Kim Clijsters went out of the tournament in one of the most extraordinary results of recent years and Justine Henin struggled to beat Russia's Alisa Kleybanova.
Clijsters, who won the US Open four months ago in only her third comeback tournament, was beaten 6-0, 6-1 by Nadia Petrova, the No 19 seed, who had lost all four of their previous meetings. Clijsters played like a complete novice, winning just five points as she lost the first set in only 18 minutes. She improved marginally in the second set, but her level was way below the standards she had set since coming back from retirement last summer.
Petrova, who played impeccably from the start, is a former world No 3, but had done little in recent years to suggest she was capable of pulling off such a victory.
The result was almost as big a shock as Henin's defeat by Marion Bartoli in the Wimbledon semi-finals three years ago, though the scoreline was more reminiscent of 16-year-old Jelena Dokic's 6-2, 6-0 victory over Martina Hingis, the world No 1, in the first round at Wimbledon in 1999. It was Clijsters' heaviest defeat in her 28 Grand Slam tournaments.
She was at a loss to explain her performance. "I made all the mistakes and she didn't really have to do much," Clijsters said. "She served really well and was aggressive in the rallies, but that's because I let her play into the courts. I wasn't feeling the ball well. It sucks. It's something you don't want to happen too often.
"Matches like this happen maybe once a year. But you don't want it to happen more than this because then you know it's not a coincidence. I don't think I've changed anything in my whole preparation before every match. Everything was the same, I followed the same routine and then something like this happens. That's probably the most frustrating thing about it, not knowing. That's sport."
Henin, playing her second tournament after coming out of retirement, also seemed on the way out when she lost the first set and trailed 3-1 and 15-40 in the second before recovering to beat Kleybanova 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. The 2004 champion never found the form she had hit in beating Elena Dementieva in the previous round and said she was still feeling the effects of her exertions two days earlier. "My body suffered a lot," Henin said. "It's not used to it any more. After almost two years off, it's normal that it takes a little bit to really get used to it physically."
She added: "I kind of survived a little bit today. It's always good to win this kind of match because I came back from nowhere."
Henin now faces another Belgian, Yanina Wickmayer, who reached the semi-finals at last year's US Open. The world No 16 has already won six matches here after having to qualify. Wickmayer's successful appeal against a suspension for breaching the drugs "whereabouts" rule came after the cut-off date for tournament entries, thereby forcing her to enter the qualifying competition.