Justine Henin’s hopes of repeating her memorable run to the final of last year’s Australian Open evaporated in the heat of another day of glorious sunshine here today. The 28-year-old Belgian was the second favourite to win the title, behind her compatriot Kim Clijsters, but was outplayed by a rejuvenated Svetlana Kuznetsova, who won their third-round match 6-4, 7-6.
When Henin came here 12 months ago she had just begun her comeback after an 18-month “retirement”. The former world No 1 reached the final of her first tournament in Brisbane, losing to Clijsters, and went on to do the same here before losing to Serena Williams.
This year represented yet another comeback for the 2004 Melbourne champion, who spent the second half of last year recovering from an elbow injury sustained at Wimbledon. She made her first reappearance in the Hopman Cup mixed team event in Perth at the start of the year but has always said that she does not expect to be at her best for many months yet.
So it proved. Kuznetsova, who has lost weight during the off season and is looking fitter than she has for a while, dominated the contest and even conquered her own nerves at the end, when she twice failed to serve out for the match. Henin took the second set into a tie-break and Kuznetsova scorned three match points before forcing her opponent into a forehand error on the fourth.
Henin, who had beaten Britain’s Elena Baltacha in the previous round, is still a wonderful ball striker and ferocious competitor, but her 41 unforced errors and nine double faults proved fatal against an opponent she had beaten in 16 of their 18 previous meetings. Currently No 13 in the world, the Belgian will drop several places when the rankings are updated at the end of this tournament.
“She was just better than me, especially in the important moments,” Henin said afterwards. “I had some opportunities in the second set to come back, but I never really took the lead in this match. She was much more aggressive than me. That made a big difference.
“I felt she got a bit nervous [at the end] and I had nothing to lose any more, so I just went for my chances. It was a bit better at the end, but not enough. I served a few double faults in the tie-break, made too many mistakes and didn’t hit enough winners or create enough chances that I could take.”
As for her physical state, Henin said: “I know I’m not 100 per cent. I knew it before I walked on the court. That's why I say there are no excuses. I decided to play not being 100 per cent. It's been difficult over the last three days with my elbow. I just did everything that I could to make it OK, but it wasn't enough.”
Kuznetsova is only 25 but is regarded as a tour veteran, having won her first Grand Slam title at the US Open as long ago as 2004. Although she added a second major crown with her victory at the French Open two years ago, the Russian has been in a steady decline and is currently No 26 in the world rankings, having previously been as high as No 2.
“I'm really pleased with way I played today, especially in the first set,” Kuznetsova said. “After that, it's tennis and you get nerves. I wanted to win so much and it was a great atmosphere. Match by match, I'm getting better and better. It's a real pleasure for me to play on this court today.”
Kuznetsova will now meet Francesca Schiavone, the French Open champion, who beat Romania’s Monica Niculescu 6-0, 7-6. Schiavone had struggled in the two previous rounds, coming back from a set down to beat Spain’s Arantxa Parra Santonja and beating Rebecca Marino 9-7 in a tense final set.
Caroline Wozniacki, the world No 1, maintained her record of not dropping a set when she beat Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova 6-4, 6-3. The Dane will now play Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova, who extended her fine run by beating the Russian Vesna Manasieva 6-1, 6-3. Sevastova, the world No 46, had never gone beyond the second round of a Grand Slam until her victory over Yanina Wickmayer here.
Li Na, a semi-finalist at Melbourne Park 12 months ago, arrived here fresh from her victory over Clijsters in the final at Sydney last week and is still in top form. China’s world No 11 beat Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, of the Czech Republic, 6-2, 6-1 and will now play Victoria Azarenka, a 6-3, 6-3 winner over South Africa’s Chanelle Scheepers.