Doha - Top seed Li Na's eagerly-awaited return to action after her stunning Australian Open triumph last month has ended in a bewildering loss to a qualifier in the third round of the Qatar Open on Thursday.
The much-celebrated Chinese player appeared to have turned the match around when she came from behind to lead 3-1 in the final set against Petra Cetkowska, a Czech ranked outside the top 100, only to stumble to a 7-6 (7-2), 2-6, 6-4 defeat.
True, Cetkowska has solid attacking ground-strokes which held up well against the forceful Li, and is making her way back from injury having once been in the top 30. She also won their last encounter, more than two years ago.
But Li had so many chances to grab hold of the contest in the final set, holding points for 3-0, 4-1, and 5-3, and was infuriatingly unable to convert any of them.
She also appeared to tire in a two-hour 46-minute tussle full of demanding rallies and emotional twists, and her error ratio soared worryingly as her attacks became less controlled.
"I don't think my performance was so bad. And she played very well," said Li.
"If I had continued coming to the net more it would have been better. And a defeat is not always so bad either.
"At least I fought and I got information from what happened. I will put that information straight into my training."
Cetkowska admitted that she had also tired, saying: "I somehow just tried to play every single ball, and what has happened is so amazing.
"I was down in the third set so I am very happy to have come back. This is a tennis match so such things can always happen. it will give me a lot of confidence."
What made the result even more surprising is that Li appeared to have benefited greatly from a highly-charged moment in the second set when she might have gone a set and a break of serve down.
She swung a ferocious backhand drive close to the baseline, and heard it called out as a lunging Cetkowska managed only to get the edge of her racket to it.
Had that decision stood she would have gone 1-2, 15-40 down, but her appeal to the video review system showed the ball having touched the back edge of the line and the score became 30-all instead.
Cetkowska protested strongly that the out call had come before she had attempted to return the ball, that it had therefore interfered with her stroke, and that the point should be replayed.
But her case was not strong, and she was overruled, and after Li duly held that service game, the Czech's standard dropped markedly.
Li took seven games in a row, not only levelling the match at a set all, but going a break up in the decider, and changing the ambience of the contest utterly.
But the 31-year-old could not maintain it, and appeared to flag physically.
She ended up uncharacteristically defending in her next service game, and could not hold, and then dropped another service game in which she delivered a double fault.
Amazingly, four games later she was unable to put the ball away from right on top of the net, with Cetkowska making a great guess as to where the smash was going and returning with a winning lob.
She then closed out the match as Li no longer had the capacity to take advantage.
There was consolation for Chinese fans a little later, however, when Peng Shuai became the first Chinese player to top a world ranking.
She and her Taiwanese partner, Hsieh Su-wei, won a first-round doubles match 6-2, 6-4 against the Ukrainean-Russian combo of Irina Buryachok and Vitalia Diatchenko, which is enough to take them above the world number one pair, Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani of Italy, at the end of the week.
Results from the fourth day of the WTA Qatar Open in Doha on Thursday (x denotes seeding):
Petra Cetkovska (CZE) bt Li Na (CHN x1) 7-6 (7/2), 2-6, 6-4
Jelena Jankovic (SRB x5) bt Alisa Kleybanova (RUS) 6-1, 6-2