As if Kim Clijsters' achievement last year in winning a Grand Slam title just three tournaments into her comeback was not extraordinary enough, Justine Henin remained on course to better her fellow Belgian's feat when she reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open here last night.
The former world No 1, who is playing only her second tournament since returning earlier this month, is hardly looking like she needs a helping hand, but she was given one when Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the two highest-ranked players in her half of the draw, went out.
Henin took care of her own passage into the last eight when she beat Yanina Wickmayer, the third member of a remarkable trio of Belgian women, 7-6, 1-6, 6-3. Wickmayer, who reached the semi-finals of last year's US Open, played a splendid second set, but Henin quickly took command of the decider despite spraining her left ankle in an awkward fall.
"That was the kind of match that gives confidence," Henin said afterwards. "When you have to fight, that's probably what I need. It's just more than what I could have expected. I couldn't think I could be at this level at this time of the year after almost two years off. The way I feel out there is magical. I feel so happy on the court. I feel it's my place." Henin's next opponent will be Nadia Petrova, who followed up her crushing victory over Clijsters by beating Kuznetsova, the No 3 seed, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1. Petrova, a former world No 3 who has been dogged by injuries in the last three years, said her success was down to a new "all or nothing" approach to her tennis.
Safina, the world No 2 and last year's beaten finalist, retired when serving at 4-5 in the first set against Maria Kirilenko after suffering a recurrence of the back injury that forced her out of the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha at the end of last year. She said she would return to Germany to see her doctor when she can travel comfortably.
"I just cannot move anywhere," a distressed Safina said after the match. "The physio asked me to lie on the table. I said: 'I cannot lie. I cannot make any movement.' Whatever I try to move, it hurts terribly." Kirilenko, who knocked out Maria Sharapova in the first round, is through to her first Grand Slam quarter-final. She will now play China's Jie Zheng, who is enjoying her best run since reaching the Wimbledon semi-finals two years ago.