Australian Open women's preview
A sweet swinging top 16 favorites
By Matthew Cronin
Kim Clijsters: Feeling fresh and fighting hard, she scored two wins over fellow top-drawer players Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic in the last week. It's her time to shine again, if she can avoid getting injured. She many appear carefree to some, but inside, she has be burning to win her second Slam title. If she serves well and returns with aggression, she can outlast anyone off the ground.
Maria Sharapova: She could easily be called the co-favorite, and like Clijsters, is itching to win here, especially after taking heart-stopping losses to Serena Williams and Justine Henin-Hardenne in her last two semifinal appearances. But she'll have to down gallons of Gatorade if she ends up facing Clijsters in the mid-day sun and absolutely cannot back off closing points off at the net.
Jelena Jankovic: Are you waiting for her tie-dyed balloon to pop? It sort of did in her loss to Clijsters in Sydney, but not completely, given that she lasted until the 10th game for the third set. The Serb is still a bit of a work in progress, but is so confident now and has such a negotiable draw that it's easy to see her downing Mauresmo again and reaching the final. She's ground stroking as well as anyone, but her serve is sporadic.
Amelie Mauresmo: The defending champ might be able to coolly surf into the semis if she finds her form early, when she'll have to find away to blunt Vaidisova's power and negate Jankovic's backhand. She's very capable of working her magic Down Under, but the gut feeling here is that she's won her last Slam.
The second tier
Svetlana Kuznetsova: What's missing with Sveta these days? Confidence? Motivation? A consistent go-to game plan? All of the above, but she can put it together in a moment's notice.
Martina Hingis: She'll take down Dinara Safina this time and reach the quarters, but under what circumstances can she best Clijsters these days? Only if Kimmy is hurt.
Nadia Petrova: She's vulnerable to depression when she's injured and she hurt her stomach again. Her money match will come against Serena in the third round. If she wins, then she'll be dangerous and a threat to Jankovic.
Ana Ivanovic: When she's on, her all-round game sports Top-5 stuff. When she's off, you wonder when she's going to put it all together. She has potentially attractive match-up with Sharapova in their quarter, but she's not consistent enough to really hurt her yet.
Nicole Vaidisova: Her mini-slump could very well end here, but the uncompromising Elena Dementieva will seriously test her before she gets to Mauresmo. That's her money match - beating an extremely consistent player who isn't bothered by hard-hitting kids. If she gets by there, Mauresmo might have reason to worry again a la Paris.
Anna Chakvetadze: Tracy Austin calls her the new Hingis. She might be a little grittier, but is also a bit too emotional. She's smart, play the angles well and is rising daily. Don't be stunned if the Russian reaches the semis.
Serena Williams: It seems almost silly to count her amongst the 16 doesn't it, when she has proved very little in the four tournaments that she's played in her comeback. She can still talk a good game and, at times, there are flashes of the style that used to scare the rest of the tour, but no one is afraid of her now and she has to earn respect again. She has the talent, but does she have the will to put her nose to the grindstone and win ugly?
The third tier
Na Li: Is she a legit Top-20 player, or a robotic product of the Chinese Tennis Federation who doesn't have a lot of heart? She's in great shape and has fine groundies, but the jury is still way out until she makes a semifinal push at a Slam or wins a Tier 1.
Dinara Safina: Maybe she's been a bit underrated and maybe she does have a little more of her brother's heart than it appeared at first glance. She's slow, but so was Lindsay Davenport, and Safina can really club the ball. Her win over Hingis at the Gold Coast was very impressive, but it's hard to see beating the Swiss at a Slam. She'll get a chance here.
Elena Dementieva: Image this "best player not to have won a Slam" falling into the third tier? But that's all she deserves since September. Her heart is difficult to locate and her mind is wandering.
Shahar Peer: The Israeli hasn't flashed Top-10 stuff, but she's gritty enough to take down Kuznetsova and reach the quarters.
Samantha Stosur: Some might take Alicia Molik as a local veteran ready to make good again, but I'll give the nod to Stosur, if she keeps attacking and stops fooling herself in the backcourt.</SPAN>