Tough early start for Venus


SYDNEY, Australia -- Unfortunately the year is starting off the way the second half of last year ended, the person who is healthy is sitting on top. Besides some blisters on her foot, Justine Henin-Hardenne is healthy. Given the confidence she has from her success at the French Open and the U.S. Open, she should be the favorite to win another Grand Slam tournament taking three of the past four titles.

This is the first time she's seeded No. 1 in a major, which brings a different, slightly more intense pressure. But she said last year that she thrives under pressure. It was in Melbourne last year, when she overcame Lindsay Davenport 7-5, 5-7, 9-7 in the round of 16 that Henin-Hardenne's confidence started to build in the majors.

So now, there's no potential threat in her half of the draw; she should find herself in the final four. Davenport is the one danger for her. They were to play each other in Sydney Thursday night in the semifinals, however Davenport, still recovering from foot surgery, hurt her shoulder and withdrew. Davenport said she hopes to be ready for the Aussie. If Davenport reaches the quarterfinals and meets Henin-Hardenne, it is certainly a match Davenport could win. However, expect Henin-Hardenne based on her performance of the past nine months, where she's not finished outside of the semifinals of any tournament, to win.

Amelie Mauresmo, another player with a lot of injuries the past year, is in the final four in Sydney. She also played in the Hopman Cup, so she's had good match preparation. She's got enough talent. She's been to finals before in 1999, so she can play on Rebound Ace. Plus, she has one of the best all-court games in women's tennis. If she runs hot, she can beat anyone. But she tends to be hot and cold and over two weeks that can spell problems at some point.

Also in that section of the draw are Elena Dementieva and Daniela Hantuchova. Dementieva had a good year in '03. She has such a weak serve, though, it's going to prevent her from getting much higher in the rankings then she is now. Hantuchova is having trouble winning any match. She only won by default at the Hopman Cup and fell in the first round in Sydney. It's the worst slump we've seen in a while from a former top-5 player -- especially a young player. Usually you see this type of slump in someone older. But for someone who should be continuing to improve, it's a major worry. Although she now has Harold Solomon coaching her there's been no improvement, although it is still early in that partnership.

So expect Mauresmo to get through this part of the draw.

Venus Williams is THE story in the first week of the Aussie Open as the one Williams sister back. They've both been missed. Last year, there were more questions around Venus and her desire play. Questions of how she'd cope with the frustration of losing two finals to Serena. Then she suffered her injury and the loss of their sister in a shooting. Venus has had a lot to deal with.

There are now worries about Serena not returning after a pretty routine injury. Has the rehab gone wrong, was the surgery not successful, is her body too big for that particular joint, what is going on? There's a lot of questions surrounding Serena this year.

After being out since the Wimbledon final, Venus played in Hong Kong last week. She only played a couple of matches, but she won that exhibition tournament.

The WTA recommended that Venus be seeded third instead of 11th, according to her ranking. It does seem a little high, a top eight seed would have made the point. They don't usually do it for injuries that last only four months, but there's a big difference between that and half a season. They did something similar for Davenport last year because of the length of recovery time she needed after surgery. For the sake of balance of the draw, overall it's probably a good thing.

She'll be tested from the beginning against young American Ashley Harkleroad, who reached her first WTA final in Auckland last week. She had a good start last season but an arm injury made the second half of the year not go as well. So this year, she's back off to a good beginning only to draw Venus in the first round. She will put pressure on Venus. Harkleroad hits the ball well enough and hard enough that if Venus is nervous or wild with her serve, Harkleroad can cause Venus some problems.

In the rest of that section, Ai Sugiyama is coming off her best year. She's the kind of player that in the old days you'd look at the draw and just start to write Venus' name in as the winner. But it's less set now, and Sugiyama is a heck of a player and a great defender. It really all depends on how well Venus does in her first match, how far she'll go. If Venus is even close to her Grand Slam form, she should get through all the players to reach the semifinals.

During the offseason, Kim Clijsters had a big exciting thing happen off-court with her engagement to Lleyton Hewitt. She spent her time off down in Australia, so she's acclimated to the climate. Due to her lengthy relationship with Hewitt, the public is looking at her more like an adopted daughter. She just received a tennis award from the International Tennis Writers Association for best ambassador of the sport, so her popularity on the inside and the outside of tennis is growing.

She's a fun champion to have at the top of women's tennis, but she's another one with injury problems. Clijsters ankle is hurt, and while she's doing a little bit more each day, she's still not at a 100 percent. She faces Marlene Weingartner in the first round. Even Weingartner beat Jennifer Capriati here last year, Clijsters should still be able to dictate play against her.

But there's also Anastasia Myskina in this half of the draw. If Myskina gets her temperament more together and gets more consistent, she'll be a feared opponent by everyone. Chanda Rubin can be a stubborn opponent and although Clijsters has taken her apart in the past, if she can't move well, it's a different ballgame.

Clijsters also has tons of baggage from her year in the majors last year. She had too many crash and burns late in the semis and finals. Until she gets through that last hurdle, she's got major doubts.