Clijsters reopens old doubts after crashing to Li defeat in final

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The Independent Online

Kim Clijsters will start the Australian Open here next week as favourite to win the year's opening Grand Slam event but the 27-year-old Belgian's confidence might just have taken a knock with her 7-6, 6-3 defeat by China's Li Na in the final of the Sydney International yesterday.

Since making her comeback two years ago, having taken a break to have a child, Clijsters has largely shed her reputation as a player who frequently stumbled when she reached the finishing straight. The former world No 1, who had not lost in 14 semi-finals or finals following her return, appeared to be coasting to victory when she led Li 5-0 in the first set, but a combination of her opponent's rapid improvement and her own failure to keep going for her shots brought about a dramatic turnaround.

Li, who reached the semi-finals here last year, sealed her fourth career title and in so doing underlined her own credentials to win what appears to be one of the most open Grand Slam events for years. That is largely down to the absence of Serena Williams, who has dominated this event in the recent past but has not played since injuring a foot on a piece of glass in a restaurant last summer.

Caroline Wozniacki and Vera Zvonareva are the world's top two ranked players, ahead of Clijsters, but neither has won a Grand Slam title and both have started the year in questionable form. Wozniacki lost exhibition matches to Clijsters and Zvonareva, the latter winning 6-1, 6-0, and lost her only competitive match of the year to Dominika Cibulkova in Sydney this week. Zvonareva also lost at the same stage in Sydney, going down to Flavia Pennetta.

Wozniacki has a potentially tricky first-round match against Argentina's Gisela Dulko, while Clijsters could have to beat three former world No 1s to reach the semi-finals. In the first round she meets Dinara Safina, who lost to Williams in the final two years ago, and could later play Ana Ivanovic, who was beaten in the final by Maria Sharapova 12 months earlier, and Jelena Jankovic.

Justine Henin, having lost to Williams in the final last year after coming out of retirement, is making another comeback, this time after an elbow injury which saw her miss the second half of last year. In the second round she could meet the British No 1, Elena Baltacha. Both women face qualifiers in their opening matches.

Anne Keothavong, Baltacha's predecessor as British No 1, maintained her hopes of reaching the main draw when she won her opening match in the qualifying tournament, beating Darya Kustova, of Belarus, 6-1, 6-2. Heather Watson, the British No 3, maintained her good form when she beat France's Kristina Mladenovic 6-3, 6-2. Both Britons were due to play second-round matches today. Katie O'Brien was on the way to securing a hat-trick of British wins but lost 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 to Luxembourg's Mandy Minella.