MELBOURNE, Australia - World No. 1 Justine Henin is my favorite to win the first major of the year, but expect Serena and Venus Williams as well as Maria Sharapova to take solid shots at leaving Melbourne as the Australian Open champion.
Henin skipped this Grand Slam event last year because she was going through a divorce. She watched as Serena defied long odds to emerge as the champion in one of the most surprising outcomes to a major that I have ever seen. A year ago Serena came to Melbourne having played just 19 matches in the previous 12 and a half months. In the space of two weeks the unseeded American would defeat six seeds, including Sharapova in the final in which Serena lost only three games.
Besides Henin, Serena, Venus, and Sharapova, other players to closely watch are rising stars Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic as well as Lindsay Davenport. The 31-year-old American is back on tour six months after giving birth to her first child. She will be a most dangerous floater who could face Sharapova in the second round.
Henin is a handful
The 5-foot-5 Henin made it to at least the semifinals of the three majors she competed in last year, winning the French Open and U.S. Open. Perhaps the only glitch in her season came at Wimbledon when she failed to make the final by losing to Marion Bartoli in three sets. A result even more shocking since Henin breezed through the first set, 6-1. Still, overall Henin had a year to remember as she posted the best winning percentage in the women's game since Steffi Graf's in 1989.
Henin is a complete player. Her serve is not as big as that of some of the other elite players but it's very solid. The 25-year-old has so much game as far as offense from the baseline with her big backhand and a forehand that's become more of a weapon for her than in the past. At the net she's quite comfortable displaying excellent technique. She knows where to position herself -- a contrast to many other players who get up to the net and look like a deer in headlights.
The Belgian has a beautiful drop volley and a nice slice. She can change the rhythm of points. Without any glaring weakness, she's just really tough to break down. When she's being aggressive she plays her best tennis and expect her to be aggressive in trying to capture her eighth major and her second Australian Open title, the first coming in 2004. The top-seeded Henin won’t face a Top 10 player until a potential quarterfinal match against the fifth-seeded Sharapova.
A Serena vs. Venus final?
The Williams sisters have the ability to ratchet up their games in the majors and both come into this Melbourne fortnight better prepared than they have for previous Australian Opens. The play of Serena and Venus has been unpredictable over recent years, mostly because of injuries and layoffs. But with no red flags accompanying them this time around, don't expect either to make a surprise early exit Down Under.
Last year marked the first time since 2001 that Serena played in all four majors. She was a top contender in each of them and might have come away with at least one other major besides the Australian Open if it were not for Henin, who beat the American in the quarterfinals of the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. If Henin and Serena, who is seeded seventh, meet up in Melbourne it won't be until the semifinals.
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To beat Henin, Serena will have to play like she did last year in Melbourne. She has to go for more sooner and be accurate just like she did against Sharapova in last year's final Down Under. Against Henin it's a tall order to be able to keep hitting that hard and with that much accuracy but Serena did it against Sharapova and she'll need a Melbourne repeat if she faces Henin. The champion that Serena is I'm sure she would like to get back to No. 1 in the world and Henin is standing in her way.
Venus is the eighth seed and she's in the bottom half of the draw (Henin, Serena, Sharapova, Jankovic, and Davenport are in the top half) so there is the possibility of a Williams sisters final. Venus has made the Australian Open final once -- in 2003 losing in three sets to Serena -- but has never won this major, which is surprising since the surface suits her game. Her draw is favorable with a possible semifinal tangle with second-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova, whom Venus defeated in straight sets last summer at Wimbledon.
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