Tracy Austin: Big three show it's one deep pool of talent

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In contrast to the Wimbledon men's event and the domination of Roger Federer, the women's tournament seems to me to be wide open this year. In the past we have had clear favourites like Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis or Serena Williams, but this time I am looking for a winner to come from one of three - the world No 1, Lindsay Davenport, the defending champion, Maria Sharapova, and the comeback kid, Justine Henin-Hardenne.

There has been a lot of talk in the past about lack of depth in the women's game. That is hardly the case any more; the draw this time might offer the sight of the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, both twice champions, meeting in the fourth round, and another fascinating fourth-round prospect, Davenport clashing with Kim Clijsters, which would make a great final. I call that pretty good depth.

The Belgian pair, Justine and Kim, are both former No 1s, but both are coming back after long spells out. So they have had to work their way back up the rankings, whereas in the past the Women's Tennis Association have applied the "special ranking" rule. This rule permitted players like Graf, Davenport and Monica Seles to come back after long absences still ranked where they had left off. Last year the WTA also applied it in the case of Venus and Serena, but following complaints from some of the players it was decided to discontinue the rule.

Because of this, Clijsters, who has figured in three Grand Slam finals, finds herself seeded 15th, and of the top four seeds who have to face those seeded 13th to 16th, Lindsay was the unlucky one.

After a fantastic 24-match winning streak which saw her win at Roland Garros, Henin-Hardenne has got back up to seventh seed, which is just as well, because she has the toughest draw of my three picks.

This girl has incredible mental toughness; she's the one to put your money on when the chips are down. Though she doesn't have a huge serve, her beautifully sliced backhand is difficult to contend with on grass, she moves well at the net and is a natural volleyer. Let's hope she comes in fresh following her rest after the French and has no more viral problems.

Grass is also a good surface for Sharapova, as she showed last year. She also has that win in Birmingham last week under her belt, though she didn't come through that tournament as easily as she would have liked. Maria has shown that she can handle pressure well; now it will be interesting to see how she handles the expectations.

In 2004 Sharapova was free from expectation. This time we will see if her game has developed enough to take care of her changed situation. She has the weapons, demeanour and temperament to play well under pressure, has solidified her game and believes she can beat anybody now.

As a "veteran" of 29, Davenport has opted not to play warm-up tournaments. That's good because, towards the end of her career, it is best she shows she is fresh and eager. Lindsay feels she still has a Grand Slam in her, and I am surprised she didn't win one last year. She is striking the ball well, she looks fit, and grass is a good surface for her big serve and flat, hard, deep groundstrokes.

I expect Davenport to repeat the victory she had over Clijsters at the French. On this surface she has the edge. Though Kim moves much better than Lindsay, I hope I don't seem too picky in pointing out that Kim's big, loopy swing on the forehand could come unstuck on a fast surface, causing her to make contact late.

I think Serena Williams, despite her great recent Wimbledon record, is below the level of my top three. Because of an ankle injury, she has had only one tournament in the past two months, in Rome, where she lost her first match. But if anybody can play well without being match-tough, it is Serena. She has come back very quickly from injury in the past, though I would have liked to see her play one pre-Wimbledon event, perhaps Eastbourne.

Someone else I expect to have a good run is Amélie Mauresmo. Looking at her draw, the gods are with her. So many people have been hoping to see Amélie come through to her first Grand Slam, so when a chance like this one comes along she is going to have to capitalise.

Finally, the sight of all those Russians among the top 10 doesn't mean a thing as far as Wimbledon is concerned. Apart from Sharapova, none stands a chance of winning. They are simply not up to her level yet, though they are knocking on the door.

Interview: Ronald Atkin