Venus To Shine On
VENUS TO REIGN SUPREME <br />By Andy Schooler, Sportinglife.com
Another fascinating year lies in store on the WTA Tour.
With so many players capable of winning Grand Slams, the forthcoming season could even eclipse 2001 which has to go down as a classic year for the the women's game.
Comeback queen Jennifer Capriati proved to be the story of the first half of the season, stunning everyone as she won the Australian and French Opens and moved past the halfway mark in her bid for the Grand Slam.
It was not to be, and instead Venus Williams stole the show in the latter part of the season, winning the remaining two Slams and stamping her authority back on the game.
Sideshows included Miss Consistency Lindsay Davenport ending the year as world No1, adding to Martina Hingis' woes in the process.
There was also the emergence of two young stars from Belgium.
Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin both reached Grand Slam finals, ended the season firmly established in the top ten and lifted the Fed Cup.
But who will be the stars this time around? And who will be the players racing up the rankings, making the headlines along the way?
For me, Venus Williams simply has to be the player they all have to beat.
The American comes into the season having won the last two Slams and this should be the year Williams finally asserts her control on the women's circuit.
Since her emergence, Williams has been tipped as the next big thing.
She has won four Grand Slams singles titles already but has yet to dominate the game as many predicted.
This is partly due to her lack of tournament play - something she has vowed to improve this year.
There is no-one who can touch Venus on her best form which she managed to show last summer as she won 24 out of 25 matches in winning Wimbledon and the US Open.
She outscores all her opponents on athleticism - even sister Serena.
Her serve is probably only bettered by the younger Williams sibling, and her reach ensures she gets back more balls than other players.
The 21-year-old has a better head-to-head record against all her fellow top 20 players bar Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis - but she dominates both those players over the past two seasons.
It all adds up to a fine year for Williams.
The only doubt concerns her early-season form.
She has not played since the US Open and has yet to win at the Australian Open.
Come spring, clay is her least favourite surface, so a good start Down Under will be vital if she is to finally emerge as the world No1 this time next year.
But such a long lay-off should not be a worry. Father and coach Richard will see to that.
There were similar concerns over Serena before the WTA Tour Championships in November, but she came out all guns blazing and lifted the title.
Venus is the player I expect to dominate this season.
Doubtless sister Serena, Davenport and Jennifer Capriati will have something to say about that.
The 'power' generation will, I'm sure, fill the semi-final line-up at one of the Grand Slams at least - draw permitting.
That leaves out one notable player, world number five Kim Clijsters.
I believe she will meet her match week in, week out against those already mentioned.
But come spring, Clijsters could have a field day on the European clay.
Unlike the men's game, the women's circuit is not full of claycourt specialists capable of toppling the established order.
And the Belgian, still only 19, can make the most of that.
She came desperately close in 2001, losing to Capriati 12-10 in the deciding set of a Roland Garros classic.
As she showed in the recent Fed Cup when she blitzed past all of her opponents, Clijsters loves a high bouncing ball.
She defies her slender frame with the power of her groundstrokes, such a key element on the red dirt.
With less to drag around the court than some of her bulkier rivals, Clijsters is also well equipped for the strength-sapping rallies claycourt tennis always produces.
Clijsters has yet to beat the best players in the world on a regular basis, but expect that breakthrough to begin on clay.
In 2001, it was Clijsters' compatriot Justine Henin who chewed up the ranking list and spat it out.
Henin stormed up from 48th at the start of the season to seventh come the end as she burst on to the scene - a remarkable rise.
It is unlikely anyone will make such an impact on the top 10 this season, but if anyone is to do so, my pick would be Nadia Petrova.
The Russian may have taken slightly longer to move up the ranking list - she is currently 39th - but at the age of 19, Petrova is hardly over the hill.
A teenager possessing a booming forehand, Petrova prefers the claycourts.
She is a former winner of the junior title at Roland Garros, a venue where she reached the last 16 in 2001.
It was also on a claycourt that Petrova produced some of her best displays of the season - in Madrid at the Fed Cup finals.
With her serve finally in good working order, Petrova helped her country into the final, producing an against-the-odds win over France and Sandrine Testud.
But it is not just on clay that Petrova has performed. She was a fourth-round loser at Wimbledon.
Petrova has risen consistently over the past three years - climbing 47 places in 1999, 33 in 2000 and 21 in 2001.
Although she is unlikely to be able to compete just yet with the likes of Clijsters (who she was hammered by in Madrid), Petrova certainly looks capable of cracking the top 20 this season.
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