Venus Williams insisted that she still had plenty of tennis left in her, but there was an inescapable feeling here yesterday that the women's game was approaching the end of an era.
With her sister Serena still nursing the foot injury that has kept her out for more than six months, a groin muscle problem forced Venus to retire after only seven points of her third-round match in the Australian Open.
Williams' first retirement in her 258th Grand Slam singles match came during the second game against Germany's Andrea Petkovic. Having injured her psoas muscle in her previous match against Sandra Zahlavova, the 30-year-old American strained it again as she stretched to return a serve. "I just couldn't play," she said afterwards. "I couldn't move. It was too painful."
She added: "It's super disappointing because this is just not how I envisioned my Australian Open being, but I have peace of mind that I really gave more than my best to be out there. I'm just going to focus obviously on getting healthy and coming back, because I love tennis and I've got a lot of great tennis in me. I love my job, so no end in sight."
Venus (below) has not won a Grand Slam title since 2008, while Serena won two last year. However, there is still no sign of the younger sister returning after she injured her foot on a piece of glass in a Munich restaurant last July. Serena will be 30 in September and although she has made comebacks in the past following lengthy breaks, she is likely to find it more difficult now that she is approaching veteran status.
With Serena, five times a winner, not making it to the start line, there were only two former Melbourne champions in the field. That was reduced to one after Justine Henin, second favourite to win the title behind her fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters, was beaten 6-4, 7-6 by Svetlana Kuznetsova yesterday.
Henin, playing her first tournament since suffering an elbow injury at Wimbledon, had warned that it would take several months to find her best form and never looked capable of matching her feat of 12 months ago when she reached the final in only her second tournament back after ending her 19-month "retirement".
The former world No 1, who had won 16 of her previous 18 matches against Kuznetsova, made 41 unforced errors and hit nine double-faults. Her Russian opponent, who has slipped to No 26 in the world rankings, has lost weight in the off season and is looking much fitter than she was in the recent past.
Maria Sharapova, the 2008 champion, is now the only former winner left in the field. The 23-year-old Russian beat Germany's Julia Goerges 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 to earn a fourth-round meeting with Petkovic. While 11 double-faults were evidence of her continuing struggles to recapture her best form following shoulder surgery, Sharapova is showing glimpses of her old self. Since her triumph here her best Grand Slam performance was a run to the quarter-finals of the French Open in 2009.
Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, the top seeds in the bottom half of the men's draw, both secured their places in the last 16 with a minimum of fuss. Federer, who had been concerned that he might suffer some after-effects from his late-night thriller against Gilles Simon on Wednesday, beat Belgium's Xavier Malisse 6-3, 6-3, 6-1.
The Swiss, who next plays Spain's Tommy Robredo, said afterwards: "For sure it's not the easiest thing to come back from a five-setter but I managed it. Today was intense too. The first two sets almost didn't reflect how tough it was. I think that maybe broke his will a little bit. He was up 3-1 in the second set. Then I was able to come back and win 11 straight games."
Federer added: "You can't win a Grand Slam in the first week but you can lose it. I'm happy how my body is feeling and I'm moving well."
Djokovic had an even shorter time on court as his Serbian Davis Cup colleague, Viktor Troicki, retired with a stomach strain after losing the first set. The world No 3 now plays Spain's Nicolas Almagro, who beat Ivan Ljubicic 6-4, 7-6, 6-3.