There are freak results and then there are results that make no sense at all, no matter how many times you try to work them out. Kim Clijsters, the US Open champion, arrived in Melbourne as arguably the favourite for the Australian title, having won a warm-up event in Brisbane. Everything seemed in order as she cruised through her first two matches and then today, for some inexplicable reason, the wheels came off.
Her 6-0, 6-1 defeat by Russia's Nadia Petrova in the third round was her heaviest ever loss at a grand slam event and in terms of the scoreline, has to rank as one of the biggest shocks in recent grand slam history. While Petrova, the world No19, sustained a high level of play throughout, Clijsters had one of those days where the racket looked like it was deliberately doing the opposite of everything her mind demanded of it.
As the match slipped away, Clijsters wore a look that screamed: "What's happening?" and she had no explanation afterwards for why it all went wrong. "It sucks," she said. "I was completely off. She was good but I made all the mistakes and she didn't really have to do much. She served really well and was aggressive in the rallies, but that's because I let her play. It sucks that it has to happen at this stage of this tournament. If it happens in another tournament, then you can say: 'OK, it's not a big deal, just keep working hard.' Matches like this happen maybe once a year.
"You just try to stay calm because there were points where I really wanted to break my racket into pieces, but that's not going to help either, so you really just try to stay positive. At some points I was just happy I was hitting a ball in. That's how bad it was."
When she returned last August after two years of retirement, during which she had her first child, Clijsters said she expected to suffer the odd setback. But after winning her second US Open title, in just her third event back, it seemed like she was as good as ever, if not even better than before.
It was a feeling that only increased when she beat another returning former world No1, Justine Henin, in the Brisbane final a week before arriving in Melbourne. Her first two matches here were easy enough but today nothing worked. She won only five points in the entire first set and, though she improved marginally in the second, she continued to spray the ball all over the place, gifting Petrova game after game. The shame of it was that if Clijsters had been able to get even one foot into the match, the Russian's resolve might have wobbled, as it has several times in the past.
As it was, all she did was avoid the ignominy of a whitewash and it is a match that she admitted she will want to forget in a hurry. "I'm just going to stick to the routines," she said. "Everything I've been doing so far with my coach and my fitness coach has been going really well. I'm going to try to not let a match like this get me down or start doubting myself or anything."
The defeat not only robbed the tournament of Clijsters but also removed the possibility of a quarter-final showdown between herself and Henin, who is playing her first grand slam event after returning to the tour last month after 20 months away. The standard of the Belgians' clash in Brisbane was so high that many were anticipating a similar clash here, but now the path is clear for someone in that section to get right the way through to the final.
A tired-looking Henin dropped the first set to Alisa Kleybanova of Russia today before bouncing back to grind out a 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 win. She now plays yet another Belgian, Yanina Wickmayer, the world No16, for a place in the last eight.