Li Na, the first Chinese player to reach the world's top 20 and the host nation's best bet for a singles medal at next year's Olympic Games in Beijing, suffered a disconcerting first round loss in the US$1.5 million Dubai Open on Monday.
The No. 7 seed from Wuhan in Hubei Province went down 6-7, 7-6, 6-3 to Eleni Daniilidou, the world No. 42 from Greece, but led 5-3 in the second set and even held a match point for a straight sets victory at 5-4.
This nominally made the result an upset, especially as Daniilidou, frequently troubled by injuries last year, had won only two of her previous six matches this year.
But a fit and in-form Daniliidou is a dangerous and clever player, who has been in the world's top 20 herself, and has the capacity to think as well as play her way out of difficulty.
Li's well grooved ground strokes seemed likely to prevail until the tall Cretan found ways to mix it up more, variously attacking with flat serves and backhands and then with slices and slow balls.
Li was also increasingly troubled by what looked like a thigh strain in her right leg, and after drifting to 0-2 in the final set had the trainer on one game later.
After a 10-minute delay for treatment Li immediately broke back and even advanced to 3-2, but from then on her error ratio increased uncharacteristically. She finished the match with a forehand drive from half court which horribly miscued the ball 4m into the hinterland.
Daniilidou now has a decent chance of progressing to a quarter-final with the top-seeded titleholder Justine Henin, who begins her campaign today, in a tournament where in three attempts she has never lost.
However these are uncertain times for the year-end world No. 1, who lost her second surname and her first position in the rankings following her recent separation from her husband.
"My chances will depend on being able to control my emotions," the former triple Grand Slam said.
Henin won only two matches in her comeback tournament, the Open Gaz de France in Paris a fortnight ago, and she may have a none-too-easy opener against Katarina Srebotnik, the world No. 22 from Slovenia.
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