Mauresmo forces favourites to take note

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The Independent Online

Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati could not make it this year, but the women's draw at the start of the Australian Open still included several big names, notably Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin-Hardenne and - until she was knocked out on Saturday - Serena's sister, Venus.

There is another name rarely mentioned in this context: Amélie Mauresmo, the Frenchwoman who was a finalist here in 1999 and is the No 4 seed this year, her highest ranking at a Grand Slam. Yesterday Mauresmo played another good match, beating Alicia Molik 7-5, 7-5, and then gave thoughtful, intelligent answers at another thinly attended press conference.

The 24-year-old right-hander is neither glamorous nor outspoken. But she believes she is playing some of the best tennis of her career, and that she is closer than she ever has been to challenging the top players. She is itching for another stab at a Grand Slam title. This week her wish could be fulfilled.

Mauresmo, who defeated Molik, the local favourite, after a closely fought match lasting one hour and 38 minutes, faces the No 32 seed, Fabiola Zuluaga, of Colombia, in the quarter-finals tomorrow. If she prevails, she will play either Henin-Hardenne, the top seed, or Davenport, the Australian Open champion in 2000, for a place in the semi-finals and an eventual showdown with, probably, Clijsters.

Both Henin-Hardenne, who defeated Mara Santangelo, 6-1, 7-6, yesterday, and Davenport, who overwhelmed Vera Zvonareva in 47 minutes, 6-1, 6-3, are formidable propositions. But the Frenchwoman had a good season in 2003, despite being out of action for four months because of a knee injury. She won two titles, reached the quarter-finals in 14 out of 17 events and was the only player to beat both Williams sisters.

Asked about the lack of attention she has received in Melbourne, Mauresmo was diplomatic. "The Belgians and Venus have won a Grand Slam or been No 1 in the world," she said. "I guess that's what makes the difference at this stage. I haven't done that."

She lost to Henin-Hardenne in the final of the Sydney International tournament a week ago, but, with the exception of Davenport, she is the only high seed to have played in an Australian Open final, in 1999 when she lost to Martina Hingis, who retired last year. Hingis is back in Melbourne, in the television commentator's box, from where she observed Venus's implosion at the hands of Lisa Raymond in the third round.

Mauresmo, one of the hardest workers on the tour, gives herself a good chance of going all the way. "I feel good in my game," she said. "I think all areas of my game have improved. I've improved my game coming forward, I've improved physically, and I have more experience, so mentally I'm a little stronger."

Davenport, who has barely been stretched, has taken note, admitting Mauresmo is playing "extremely well".