Sharapova makes early exit, Nadal eases through

By Julian Linden

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal beat the rain and his opponent in a perfect start to his Australian Open defense as Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin enjoyed mixed fortunes on their returns to Melbourne Park on Monday.

Sharapova was the big loser, suffering a shock first-round loss to Maria Kirilenko, but Clijsters and Henin won easily on a day when everything, except Melbourne's fickle weather, followed the usual script.

Instead of the extreme heat that has left competitors soaked in sweat and gasping for air, the opening day of this year's first grand slam was severely disrupted by unseasonal wind and showers.

Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Murray escaped the downpours to ease through while Dinara Safina, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva led the Russian charge in the women's draw.

Sharapova, seeded 14th and making her first appearance at Melbourne Park since winning the championship two years ago, lost 7-6 3-6 6-4 to her good friend and fellow Russian Kirilenko.

"I could be disappointed or I could just take it as it is and just go back on the court and just keep working. I choose option two," Sharapova said.

Second seed Nadal quelled speculation about his fitness with a ruthless 7-6 6-1 6-4 victory over Peter Luczak at a packed Rod Laver Arena.

"First rounds are always difficult to play very well," Nadal said. "I thought (it was) gonna be a tough match. First set was tough. Later was easier."

FAIRYTALE COMEBACK

She made a fairytale comeback last year by winning the U.S. Open, however, and launched her Australian campaign with a 6-0 6-4 win over Canadian qualifier Valerie Tetreault.

"I never expected when I said goodbye that I would be back here," Clijsters said. "Life can change and I changed my mind, and so far I haven't regretted it for a second."

Henin romped past fellow Belgian Kirsten Flipkens 6-4 6-3 and will play Dementieva after the in-form Russian defeated compatriot Vera Dushevina 6-2 6-1.

"I feel it's my place to be here," Henin said. "It's a good feeling to be back here."

Murray began his latest attempt to end Britain's long grand slam drought with an impressive 6-1 6-1 6-2 victory over South African qualifier Kevin Anderson, while Roddick dusted himself off after colliding with a line judge to defeat Dutchman Thiemo De Bakker 6-1 6-4 6-4.

Roddick, back playing after a knee injury, said he initially feared the worst when he crashed into the official and tumbled to the court.

"I promise you that first step afterwards was a relief," the American said.

BACK PAIN

Safina, runner-up in Melbourne last year, defeated Slovakia's Magdalena Rybarikova 6-4 6-4 despite still trying to rebuild her fitness after suffering back pain late last year.

"At the end of the last year I was tired, exhausted, like I had no more fun on the court," she said.

"But now I feel like I'm back and I'm enjoying every moment."

There was no repeat of the violent ethnic clashes that have marred the start of the tournament in recent years with security adopting a firm stance.

Police ejected 11 spectators for carrying a flare then standing on seats during Croatian Ivo Karlovic's five-set win over Czech Radek Stepanek.

"Security processes and procedures are very tight," police superintendent Jock Menzel said. "We won't tolerate poor behavior and we've demonstrated that this morning."

(Editing by Ed Osmond)