Kirilenko takes the plaudits [AFP]
Maria Sharapova's belated return to the Australian Open ended swiftly when the former world number one was knocked out just hours after the first Grand Slam of 2010 began.

Belgian Kim Clijsters, back in Australia after missing the last two years to start a family, made a triumphant return while Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova all registered straight-sets wins.

Sharapova, making her first appearance at Melbourne Park since winning the championship two years ago, lost to fellow Russian Maria Kirilenko 7-6 3-6 6-4 on the Rod Laver Arena.

Unable to defend her title last year because of a shoulder injury, Sharapova was a shadow of the player who stormed to the 2008 title without dropping a single set, contributing to her own defeat with 66 unforced errors and 11 double faults.

"It's the first tournament of the year and I just came up against somebody that just played really good tennis," Sharapova said.

"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."

Fickle

Sharapova was the only major casualty on a day where everything else went according to script, except Melbourne's fickle weather.

Instead of the extreme heat that has left competitors soaked in sweat and gasping for air, the players were greeted by wind and rain when they arrived this time.

Matches on the outside courts were delayed then interrupted by showers while organisers closed the giant retractable roofs on the two main courts to ensure the feature matches went ahead.

Clijsters was runner-up at the Australian Open in 2004 but had given up on the idea of ever winning the title when she quit the sport in 2007.

But she made a fairytale comeback to the tour last year, winning the US Open, and is suddenly looming as one of the favourites in Melbourne after launching her 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."

Drought

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 Thiemo De Bakker of the Netherlands 6-1 6-4 6-4.

With the exception of Sharapova, the leading Russian women all advanced safely with Safina and Kuznetsova both sailing through their first matches.

Safina, a finalist 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.

Kuznetsova, who beat Safina in the final of last year's French Open to capture her second Grand Slam title, showed why she is a genuine contender in Melbourne with a clinical 6-1 6-2 win over Anastasia Rodionova, who recently switched nationalities from Russia to Australia.

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 against any unruly spectators.

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

Spain's Rafael Nadal was scheduled to begin his title defence in Monday's evening session while Roger Federer and Serena Williams were among the players starting their campaigns on Tuesday.

Source: Reuters