Advantage Sharapova for Australia day

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The Independent Online

Can it really only have been 12 months since Belgium confirmed its domination of women's tennis? Since Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, one and two in the world rankings, slugged it out in the Australian Open final? Now, as the first of the year's Grand Slams prepares to get under way in Melbourne tomorrow, there is no sign of either among the 128 females at the starting tape.

Can it really only have been 12 months since Belgium confirmed its domination of women's tennis? Since Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, one and two in the world rankings, slugged it out in the Australian Open final? Now, as the first of the year's Grand Slams prepares to get under way in Melbourne tomorrow, there is no sign of either among the 128 females at the starting tape.

Their demise - Henin through a newly acquired knee injury on top of a longstanding viral worry, and Clijsters because of a wrist problem which simply will not clear up - is even more dramatic than the eclipse of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, whose time out because of physical damage led them into other interest-sapping pursuits. At least the Williamses are on parade, though the extent of their decline is reflected in seedings of seven and eight. Also among the missing is Jennifer Capriati, the champion in 2001 and 2002, who has withdrawn citing concerns over her shoulder, while Lindsay Davenport, the world No 1 and winner here in 2000, declared herself doubtful on Friday because of a bout of bronchitis.

It could well be that Davenport, who can spot a golden opportunity better than most, will drag herself on to court coughing and spluttering in the hope that a gentle, early-rounds canter in the Aussie sunshine will clear things up, but the signs are that we are in line for another charge of the Russian cavalry.

The rise and rise of Russia's women is simply explained, since tennis provides an attractive route to riches in a nation where hardship remains the norm. So assiduously did they apply themselves last year that the three Grand Slam titles after Henin's win in Melbourne all fell into Russian hands, most spectacularly at Wimbledon, where Maria Sharapova crushed the defending champion, Serena Williams, and then did so againin the final of the year-end championships in Los Angeles.

Sharapova, seeded fourth, is one of four Russians in the top six at Melbourne, with the other spots filled by the French Open champion, Anastasia Myskina, the US Open winner, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Elena Dementieva, runner-up in both Paris and New York. The draw has decreed that they are on course to clash in the quarter-finals, Myskina versus Dementieva in a repeat of the 2004 French final, and Sharapova against Kuznetsova.

No disrespect to the other Russian lasses, but victory for Sharapova at Melbourne would add lustre to the event, just as it did for Wimbledon last July. The long-legged blonde, still only 17, is as impressive at winning hearts as collecting scalps. This will be her third visit, having lost in the second round in 2003 and the third round last January. Now Maria and the Australia nation, strong admirers of athletes who look good and play brilliantly, seem ready for each other.

A Sharapova victory would undoubtedly go down better in Melbourne than Moscow, where there is bitterness that Maria's father, Yuri, whisked her away as an eight-year-old to the Bollettieri academy in Florida. Her involve-ment with the Russian team at the Fed Cup was opposed by Myskina et al, their dislike of the Americanised Maria exceeded only by antipathy towards Papa Sharapova, deemed one of those pushy, over-involved dads.

Myskina, the only Russian to reach the last eight a year ago, may do even better this time. Her section of the draw is undemanding and Dementieva, whom she embarrassed in the Roland Garros final, probably still shudders at the memory. Then could come a clash with the bronchitic Davenport for a place in the final.

First up for Davenport, should she declare herself well enough, will be Spain's Conchita Martinez, who is starting her 18th season, while Venus Williams may, or possibly may not, await in the last eight. In theory, the doubts over the 28-year-old Davenport give Amélie Mauresmo, the second seed, her clearest opportunity of a first Grand Slam. The French woman, runner-up here five years back, has yet to unfurl her best tennis in a major tournament and her track record with injuries is not a good one, so fingers will be crossed back home. The biggest mental block will be the prospect of Serena Williams in the quarter-finals, a meeting of muscles if ever there was one.

So while the champion, Henin, nurses what has been diagnosed as a "micro fracture of the femoral condyle in her right knee'' and Clijsters bemoans the ongoing frailty of her wrist, it will be the Russians who will fancy their chances of tightening a grip on the women's honours.

Sentiment would wish Davenport another top prize in her farewell season; common sense says that one of these days Mauresmo will get her mind in line with her formidable strokes long enough to crash the big time. The Williamses' track record alone is enough to put one or other of them in line for yet another title. But the Russian contingent, if only because of sheer numbers, pose the realistic threat, and there will be many more people than Sharapova's dad celebrating if she is the one to pose for the traditional champion's picture with the trophy on the steps of a Melbourne tram.

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