Yawning gaps clear way for Davenport to relive past glory

Australian Open: Rivals' misfortunes give 2000 champion a golden chance to regain title as French test awaits Henman in opening match
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With top players dropping like flies before the first ball is struck, the women's draw at the Australian Open looks positively anorexic and the scope for upsets and comebacks enormous.

The tournament, which begins in Melbourne on Monday, will be missing the title-holder, Serena Williams, as well as three former champions: Monica Seles, Mary Pierce and Jennifer Capriati. Kim Clijsters, the world No 2, is in serious doubt, while Jelena Dokic, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist, has withdrawn. Martina Hingis, a triple Australian Open winner, retired last year.

So depleted is the field at the season's first grand slam that, in a controversial move, organisers have promoted Venus Williams to third spot in the seedings, although her world ranking is No 11. Venus has not played competitively since Serena beat her in last year's Wimbledon final, but she remains a formidable figure and it will be intriguing to see if she can pull off something spectacular after a six-month break.

Australian Open officials insist they are not fazed by the number of illustrious names crossed off their list, pointing out that their drawcards include not only Venus, but Justine Henin-Hardenne, the US and French Open champion and world No 1.

But the yawning gaps in the draw present tantalising opportunities for the likes of France's Amélie Mauresmo, the No 4 seed, and Lindsay Davenport, who won the Australian Open in 2000. Davenport pulled out of the semi-finals of a warm-up event in Sydney with a muscle strain yesterday but said she expected to recover in time for the Open.

The American No 5 seed, who is looking fit after spending a month in the gym, said she was optimistic about her chances but would have preferred a stronger field.

"On the whole, it's probably more of a disappointment," she said. "I know the US Open was certainly lacking in excitement without Venus and Serena there. I think it goes to show the wear and tear that the tour takes on a lot of the girls. Ideally, when you win a slam, you'd want to say that everyone was there and that 'I was the best of those two weeks'."

Serena has not yet recovered from undergoing knee surgery last August, which brought a premature end to her 2003 season. Venus's lay-off was because of an abdominal injury. The pair also endured the atrocious shock of their elder sister, Yetunde Price, being shot dead in Los Angeles in September.

So there will be no all-Williams final at this tournament, and there may be no all-Belgian showdown either. Clijsters hurt her ankle at the Hopman Cup last week and is worried about aggravating the injury. The timing could not be worse for the 20-year-old, who has yet to win a grand slam event and would be a strong contender here.

While the women's draw resembles a piece of Swiss cheese, the men's side is crowded with talent. Jostling for elbow room at the top are Andy Roddick, Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero, young guns who each took out their first major last year. Right behind them is Andre Agassi, champion three times in the past four years - and, at 33, a decade older than the other three.

Despite his age, Agassi remains a force to be reckoned with. Something in the Melbourne air agrees with him, and he always works hard during the Christmas break. Roddick, seeded No 1 for the first time at a grand slam, faces a difficult first-round opponent in Chile's Fernando Gonzales, considered to have the best forehand in tennis.

Australian hopes of a homegrown champion are centred on Lleyton Hewitt, who has slipped to No 15 in the rankings but gave a phenomenal performance in the Davis Cup final against Spain last month. His compatriot Mark Philippoussis, the No 10 seed, is enjoying a rejuvenation and could be dangerous. Another unknown quantity is Marat Safin, the 2002 runner-up and former US Open champion, who barely played last year because of injury but is making his comeback next week.

More attention than usual will focus on the British players, following Greg Rusedski's revelation that he tested positive for a banned steroid, nandrolone. Rusedski, who is unseeded, plays Spain's Albert Costa, the No 26 seed, in the first round.

Tim Henman's first opponent is France's Jean-René Lisnard, and the British No 1 might meet David Nalbandian, aWimbledon finalist in 2002, in the fourth round. Henman and Rusedski could find themselves face to face across the net in the unlikely event of both reaching the semi-finals.

Henman, the No 11 seed, has never gone past the fourth round in Melbourne, but he is in impressive form after winning the Paris Masters in November - his biggest victory to date - and reaching the semi-finals in Doha last week. He has a new coach, Paul Annacone, who worked with Pete Sampras for six years.

Henman said yesterday: "The end of the year couldn't have gone any better for me, and I want to capitalise on that. The biggest thing I learned from Paris was how relaxed I was on the court. When I'm in that state of mind, that's when my movement is very good, I play aggressively, I cover the net well. That attitude definitely helps me to keep things simple."

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