Though Maria Sharapova, The Elegant One, is rightly installed, as No 1 seed and top eye candy, at the glittering apex of the women's draw for the Australian Open, you can bet a local dollar or two that the good citizens of Melbourne, belonging as they do to that fair-minded branch of sports fanaticism which wholeheartedly embraces sentimentality, will reserve a large segment of their support over the next fortnight for someone whose success at this, the first Grand Slam of the season, is long overdue.
Kim Clijsters, welcome proof that all that glisters in the women's game is not Shazza, is entitled to a break that, for once, has nothing to do with bones in this, her declared final year on the tour. Rather like Andrew Flintoff or Tommy Cooper, there is nobody who doesn't like Kim, who doesn't wish her well, who doesn't hope she can add another Grand Slam, or two, to the single one (US Open 2005) she bears alongside her name in the records before she settles down to marriage and starting a family.
Talented and dependable, Clijsters is the sort who would get you back from the new year sales in one piece and with money still in your wallet. In her chosen profession, however, she is the Very Nearly Girl, three times runner-up and five times a semi-finalist in her past 11 Grand Slams, a four-season sequence severely disrupted by injury. Three of her four career Grand Slam final defeats were at the hands of her fellow-Belgian and nemesis Justine Henin-Hardenne, including the 2004 Australian, so the absence of the world No 1 because of reported marital problems can do Kim's ambitions no damage.
Clijsters kickstarted her farewell season in fine fashion last week by winning the Sydney title, the 23-year-old's 34th singles success in a dollar-laden career notable only for its paucity of Grand Slams. Now would be a good time to set about remedying that, and the manner of her Sydney victory indicates an awareness of this.
Six previous tilts at the Australian title have provided Clijsters with 24 wins, more than in any of the other Grand Slams. Another seven would do just fine, and why not? The holder, Amélie Mauresmo, to whom she lost because of an ankle sprain in last year's semi-finals, is short of form and pessimistic about her chances of a repeat and, as fourth seed, Clijsters has been allocated an undemanding draw until what should be the match of the women's tournament, a semi-final against Sharapova.
Having just beaten Shazza, albeit in exhibition play, at their first 2007 event in Hong Kong, she will not be daunted, especially since she holds a 4-2 lead head to head on the regular tour. Sharapova's progress to that semi-final seems serene until a possible fourth round against Ana Ivanovic, one of the best of the new talents mushrooming in Serbia. Another of the Serbs, Jelena Jankovic, has been the star of the new season, her string of nine victories, embracing the Auckland title, being terminated only by Clijsters in Friday's Sydney final. Jankovic is in the weakest quarter of the draw and, having already beaten Mauresmo in the early stages at Sydney, could emerge from that half as the finalist to challenge the Clijsters/Sharapova victor.
Joining Henin in the famous-faces-missing list is Venus Williams, whose fortunes have nosedived since her victory at Wimbledon 2005. Ongoing wrist problems are cited as the reason for her absence, though sister Serena has declared herself fit and interested enough. They contested the 2003 Aussie final, Serena winning in three sets, and she also claimed the title two years ago by downing fellow American Lindsay Davenport, who is absent because of impending motherhood.
Serena, down at 94 in the rankings, is fortunate to find herself in that third, undemanding quarter of the draw, though she must beware her first match, against the 27th seed, Mara Santangelo. At Wimbledon two years ago, her last appearance at The Championships, she needed three sets to get past the 25-year-old Italian.
It is bad luck on another Melbourne favourite, Martina Hingis, that she finds herself in the same, testing half of the draw as Sharapova and Clijsters. Having come back to the game so impressively last year that she zoomed up from having no ranking at all following her retirement in 2002 to end up in the top 10, Hingis owes her popularity to having reached the final six years in a row, winning from 1997-99 and then losing to Davenport and Jennifer Capriati (twice).
In the early weeks of her comeback last year, Hingis got as far as the quarter-finals before being ousted by Clijsters. They are due to meet at the same stage again, and the potentially bad news for Martina is that Kim, with posterity to play for, will be going for broke.Reuse content