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Ronald Atkin: Comeback queen Hingis raises local expectation

No sweat for Sharapova and Co in steamy Melbourne

Things have perked up markedly since the time Arthur Ashe opined that women's tennis fell off a cliff when you got past the top six. These days upsets are possible, but in the first week of Grand Slams you can still count on there being less drama, and bile, than in the average Celebrity Big Brother episode.

So it was in a rainy, steamy Melbourne yesterday as the Big Three in the top half of the women's field, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis, sashayed through to the last 16, dropping just 13 games between them.

The top-seeded Sharapova, who had struggled in extreme heat to get through the opening match in this, her first tournament of the year, has now found her imperious range, crushing Italy's Tathiana Garbin 6-3 6-1 in 69 minutes beneath the closed roof of the Rod Laver Arena. The 30th-seeded Garbin had no answer to the stream of winners struck by the Russian from the back of the court.

Kim Clijsters, understandably keen to do well in what she has decreed will be her farewell year on the tour, was at her business-like best in seeing off Ukraine's Alona Bondarenko 6-3 6-3. The fourth-seeded Clijsters, having dropped a mere nine games in three rounds, is now geared, mentally and physically, for the more telling stages of the first Grand Slam of 2007.

"I didn't get tested at all in my first three matches," she admitted. "But I have saved all my energy, and that's a good thing to take with me into the second week. That is where it all starts from, and there's no better feeling than knowing that all the work you did in the off-season has paid off."

The Belgian is likely to need plenty of that stored-up energy if, as projected by the seedings, she should come up against Martina Hingis in the quarter-finals. The Swiss is performing impressively and, what's more, talking a good fight at her favourite Grand Slam, the place where she got to the final for six straight years and won the title three times in succession.

That, of course, was in Hingis's other career, the one in the last century which ended in retirement at the age of 22, but she appears to be playing as effectively as ever, something to which Japan's Aiko Nakamura will testify after a 6-2 6-1 walloping in 62 minutes. So Hingis, too, has dropped a mere nine games in reaching the fourth round, and is rattling up impressive statistics, such as winning 83 per cent of points on her first serve.

That the Melbourne audience still hold her high in their affections was again obvious, as Hingis acknowledged: "It was like they expected me to win every single point because there was no reason for me to miss. That's how I felt, that kind of pressure."

That she responded so positively was further indication of growing confidence on a day when, under that closed roof, a failure of the air-conditioning system led to the public sweating almost as much as the players and a subdued response from the crowd, though Hingis was frank enough to point out: "Sometimes the crowd didn't really have that much to clap for."

Against such feeble opposition, Hingis took time to polish her serve, what she called "good placement, pretty high percentage of first serves". She compares it to the delivery of Amélie Mauresmo, the defending champion: "Not a killer serve, but well-placed and starts off the points well."

Melbourne Park's main show court also acts as a comfort zone for Hingis. "Having all those great memories of winning three titles here definitely helps. It feels like going back home." Having marched, as a wild card ranked 349 in the world, into the quarter-finals 12 months ago in her comeback year, Hingis puts herself at a different level this time round; with reason, since she is seeded sixth. She will, however, recall that is was Clijsters, her looming challenger, who put her out in 2006.

There was a spectacularly depressing exit for Australia's last singles hope, Alicia Molik, against the other Swiss, the No 8 seed Patty Schnyder. Having captured the opening set, Molik won two of the next 14 games and was beaten 3-6 6-2 6-0. The only result which could figure as an eyebrow-raiser was Vera Zvona-reva's 6-1 6-2 demolition of Ana Ivanovic, since the Russian is seeded 22 and the Serb 13. Ivan-ovic hardly helped her cause by perpetrating 26 unforced errors.

Zvonareva's success moves her into a fourth-round match-up with her compatriot Sharapova, who looks at the match this way: "Vera is tough physically, gets a lot of balls back, makes you hit a lot of balls. Just a matter of giving her another ball to hit."

Sharapova, fresh from a close-season holiday in Costa Rica, reckons she is well short of peak form but she is rounding into shape satisfactorily enough to see off the likes of Garbin without fuss. "I was moving a lot better, seeing the ball earlier, going for my shots a little bit more," she said. "Which I need to do, because with every match you know it's going to get tougher. In the second week you really have to step it up."

But this tournament, where she has been a semi-finalist for the last two years, is one which suits her style. "The ball bounces high, I can get a good hit on it, and it's definitely not really fast." This week's opposition is hereby warned.