Aussie Open plagued with rash of withdrawals


Considering everything, it actually figured. Lindsay Davenport was (1) the top seed in the women's draw for next week's Australian Open, and (2) one of the few remaining major names in the field for the Melbourne tournament, for which one can only assume plagues and locusts will be next.

And so it was perhaps disappointing, but at this point hardly a shock, to see Davenport pull out of a quarterfinal match at a warm-up tourney in Sydney this week. Bronchitis was the reason, but, shoot, it could've been anything.

Any women left to play the first major of the year? It's no longer entirely a snotty question. The defending singles champion, Justine Henin-Hardenne, is out. The other finalist from last year's Aussie Open, Kim Clijsters, is out. A two-time former champion, Jennifer Capriati, is out.

Now comes Davenport, who said Sunday she is fit and will play the Open, but about whom no one can be really sure. Her forfeit to up-and-coming Australian Samantha Stosur in Sydney, after all, came 10 days after she had pulled out of the Hopman Cup in order to provide more days of rest and recovery to an injured knee.

"It's just one of those things where my throat hurts, it's hard to breathe, it's hard to talk, I'm coughing, and my body is, you know, below average," Davenport earlier told reporters in Australia. "I mean, it's not good."

Tell it to the Open, whose organizers now don't have much choice but to sit and wait to see who shows up to compete in the women's draw.

There are certain elements that give a major tournament its feel. Tradition is one, of course. Fanfare is one. A fortnight of play doesn't hurt. But at its heart, the major -- just as in golf -- is ultimately defined by the fact that no one, but no one, wants to skip it.

On that front, the Australian Open might be on the receiving end of nothing more than bad luck. Henin-Hardenne, for example, is really only extending her run of abbreviated tennis work from last year, when she was able to appear in just nine tournaments because of a lingering virus that sapped her strength in 2004.

This time around it is a knee injury that is keeping Henin-Hardenne on the sideline. She traveled from her training home in Florida to Australia before officially bowing out, and she sounded genuinely disappointed after scratching what would have been her first tournament since the U.S. Open last September.

Clijsters, meanwhile, can't kick a lingering wrist injury. Capriati says she hasn't recovered from a shoulder injury she first suffered in November.

And don't look now, Sydney, but here comes your No. 1 seed, Davenport, hacking and coughing and ever aware of that knee injury she is just past.

This might be the year the Australian Open turns up a new kind of champion on the women's side. Perhaps the path will clear some for a homegrown player like Stosur or Alicia Molik to make some noise. The Russian contingent won every major in 2004 except the Australian; among Maria Sharapova (Wimbledon), Anastasia Myskina (French Open), Svetlana Kuznetsova (U.S. Open) and Elena Dementieva (the other French finalist last year), there very well could emerge an early contender to nail down not just one major title in '05 but also a couple of majors.

And the Aussie is not without star power -- not exactly, at least. As of this writing, both Serena and Venus Williams were scheduled to appear, and both had been given a Top 10 seeding for the Melbourne tournament. There is the ever-present question of how committed either Williams sister is to tennis at any given moment, but either player is undoubtedly capable of making a spectacular bow in the first major of the year.

And, sure, we're reaching now. We're reaching because the show must go on. They'll begin the Australian Open next week in Melbourne without Henin-Hardenne, without Clijsters, without Capriati, and without any real certainty about the durability of Davenport -- which is all to say, it's still a major. Time to hold out hope for a major performance by someone over the next two weeks.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.