Williams, Davenport blocking 'Russian slam' at Australian Open
Frederic Brown - (AFP/File)
MELBOURNE, Australia (AFP) - A fit-again Serena Williams and rejuvenated world number one Lindsay Davenport stand in the way of a Russian Grand Slam sweep at the Australian Open.
With Belgium's defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne and last year's beaten finalist Kim Clijsters both out injured, the chances are that the winner of the singles crown will hail from either Russia or the United States.
Russian women enjoyed a stellar season in 2004, with Anastasia Myskina winning Roland Garros, Maria Sharapova taking Wimbledon and Svetlana Kuznetsova claiming the US Open.
Two of those finals were all-Russian affairs, underscoring the current dominance of the former Cold War superpower in the women's game.
The question now is who can stop the relentless Russian advance in Melbourne?
For many, the best hope is former world number one Williams, returning to the Australian Open for the first time since lifting the 2003 crown, and Davenport, buoyant after finding form and fitness.
Fiercely competitive, Williams is adamant that she can rediscover the power game that proved virtually unbeatable between 2002 and 2003, when she won all four grand slam titles on the trot.
Despite seeing her ranking slip to seventh after an injury-hit season, Williams believes she is still seen as the player to beat by many of her contemporaries.
"Honestly, everybody who plays me plays me so hard because they always want to beat me," the 23-year-old said.
"I am going to get ready for each match from the first round to the final. For me, I just have to watch out for everybody," she said.
The two-time Wimbledon champion insists she is fully fit after recovering from an abdominal injury. She will need to be -- anything else and the Russians will be ready to pounce.
Davenport meanwhile, who shelved plans to quit at the end of the season after convincing herself that she still has another Grand Slam title within her to add to the three she already has, believes the field is wide open.
"We learned a lot from the last three Grand Slams," the 28-year-old American said. "I don't think anyone before the French, Wimbledon or the US Open would have put money on the eventual winners.
"A couple of players are injured (here), a couple of players not knowing if they're 100 percent yet and that really kind of throws a bit of chaos into the mix. But it feels like everyone has a chance."
After sharing out the Grand Slam honours evenly last year, attention amongst the Russia-watchers now turns to see if any of the 'tsarinas' can emerge from the pack. Many believe Sharapova is the likeliest candidate to break out.
Still restricted from playing a full WTA Tour schedule because of her age -- she only turns 18 in April -- Sharapova has taken the tennis world by storm since overwhelming Serena Williams in last year's Wimbledon final.
For Sharapova there is a simple reason for the sudden success of Russian women. "We work hard at what we do," she said. "We take it as our job. Everybody wants to be No. 1 in the world.
"2004 was beyond anybody's expectations for our country. We were in the mood to win and to get great results," she added.
But the rise to the top of Russia's women has not been without its tensions, with Sharapova at the centre of an ugly row late last year over her allegiance to the country of her birth.
The fiery Myskina led the criticism, making headlines by threatening to withdraw from Russia's Fed Cup if Sharapova was picked for this year's campaign after complaining about the antics of her compatriot's father.
Myskina sought to play down the spat this week however.
"There was nothing between me and any of the other players, just me and a player's father - that's pretty much it," Myskina said.
"I have nothing against Maria, she is a great player and she's been playing awesome last year," added Myskina, whose Open preparations suffered a setback when she was dumped out of the Sydney International warm-up event this week.