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09 Jan 2008 12:19
World number one Justine Henin goes into the Australian Open as the overwhelming favourite after an inspired 2007, but there is no shortage of challengers.
Among them is superstar defending champion Serena Williams, who stunned the tennis world by winning the title last year in her comeback event following an injury-plagued 2006 that had many writing her off for good.
Russian Maria Sharapova, last year’s beaten finalist, will also be in the hunt, as will Serena’s sister, Venus, a six-time Grand Slam winner still searching for her maiden Australian Open title.
But there are doubts over France’s Amelie Mauresmo, the 2006 champion.
She slipped down the rankings to number 18 after a dismal injury-plagued season last year and was forced out of the Sydney International this week with a groin problem.
Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anna Chakvetadze and high-flying Serbian pair Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic are also lurking dangers.
But Henin, who won here in 2004 and controversially walked off centre court midway through the 2006 final against Mauresmo with a stomach complaint, is the one to beat.
The Belgian finished 2007 with 10 titles, including the Grand Slam double of the US Open and French Open.
It was all the more remarkable as she was bouncing back from her marriage breakdown, which kept her out of last year’s Australian Open, and the emotion of a family reunion after seven years’ estrangement.
In the process she became the first woman to earn more than $5-million in prize money in one season; the first in 10 years, since Martina Hingis, to win 10 titles in a season; and the first in 18 years, since Steffi Graf, to remain unbeaten post-Wimbledon.
In an ominous warning, she said: “I still think my best tennis is yet to come.
“I will still try to improve.
Tactically and technically I worked pretty hard in December—I can always get better.
And after missing Australia last year and pulling out of 2006 final, Henin is keen to make up lost ground.
“I wasn’t here last year for the reasons we all know and two years ago when I left Melbourne I was pretty sad,” she said.
“I wasn’t healthy at that time, my stomach was bothering me a lot, so it’s quite emotional for me to be back in Australia.”
Serena Williams should be a threat if she doesn’t succumb to injury and stays focused.
Last season she was hampered by groin, calf, and thumb problems, and was forced out of the season-ending WTA Championships. But she fought back at the Hopman Cup in Perth and said she was feeling good.
“I am definitely feeling fully prepared. I feel like I am really match fit,” she said.
Sister Venus is also brimming with confidence after a morale-boasting victory over Sharapova in the final of the invitational JB Group Classic in Hong Kong last week.
“It is very exciting, especially going into the Australian, playing so well against someone of her calibre,” said Williams, who had not played a competitive game since October before the tournament.
The other previous winner in the field is tennis mum Lindsay Davenport, who lifted the title in 2000 and is a dangerous floater.
The American took a year off because of pregnancy but returned at Bali in September and won the tournament.
She followed that up with a semifinal berth in Beijing the following week, then won the Bell Challenge in Canada before heading to New Zealand this month where she lifted the Auckland Classic trophy.
The Chinese charge is led by the in-form Li Na, who won the Australian Women’s Hardcourt Championships last week, and her compatriots, Zheng Jie and Peng Shuai.—Sapa-AFP
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