SYDNEY, Australia -- When you first look at the Australian Open draw, you can't help but notice all the Russian names. They're keeping the draw tough even though several top players have withdrawn.
And there's still a chance for one more surprise withdrawal before play starts Monday with Serena Williams at the top of the list. Rumors are swirling that Serena's injured abdominal muscle might not be 100 percent. If she's healthy, she's got a pretty good draw.
Not so lucky are Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams and Amelie Mauresmo, who have difficult early round matchups.
The first match drawn out of the hat was No. 1 seed Davenport against old adversary Conchita Martinez. Earlier in her career, Davenport often lost to Martinez and hated to play her. Although Davenport usually wins those these days, Martinez is still a dangerous floater. Davenport has bronchitis, and Martinez is a player who can make you stay on the court. If Davenport manages to recover from her bronchitis, she should advance.
Australian Alicia Molik is in that section of the draw along with Venus. It's been enjoyable watching Molik's progress. She's improved each and every year to become someone to watch at the Aussie. Plus, she has a pretty good draw. Take note of how she handles being all over the place in the papers with the prospect of being the first Aussie woman since 1978 to win the title. It's a long shot, but the recent surprises on the women's side at the majors make it a possibility.
Venus, although seeded No. 8, has a tough opening match against Eleni Daniilidou. Although Daniilidou is not playing as well as last year, she won't be easy. In the second round, Venus could play Shuai Peng, who upset Anastasia Myskina in the second round at Sydney and is still alive there. Venus needs matches that will build her confidence and these opponents won't be the best for that.
If Myskina's recent upset didn't hurt her confidence, she should take her place in the quarterfinals against Elena Dementieva -- if last year is anything to go by. Dementieva's toughest opponent to get to the quarters is Patty Schnyder, whom she beat on Thursday in Sydney. Daniela Hantuchova is in this part of the draw, but Hantuchova still is not playing well enough to worry Dementieva, who started this season where she left off last year. So, a rematch of the French Open final between Myskina and Dementieva is possible, once again showing the depth the Russians are giving tennis.
Several Russians provide depth in the next section as Svetlana Kuznetsova could play fellow Russian Vera Zvonareva in the round of 16. Maria Sharapova has a dangerous floater in her draw in Mary Pierce, who won the title here in 1995. Rebound Ace is a surface that sets up well for Pierce. With her health, she's a real wild card, but she could be a surprise here. Still, Sharapova certainly is one of the favorites given her victory at Wimbledon and her outlook on her career. To her, nothing is too big: no title, no ranking. And she's got the easiest draw of any of the seeds.
Again, if Serena's healthy, she could face a great quarterfinal matchup in Melbourne with Mauresmo, who has the most awkward first-round matchup. Mauresmo will play Australia's Samantha Stosur, who has been on a tear this season. She reached her first WTA final at Gold Coast and is now in the final of Sydney after a walkover. Plus, expect a lot of Aussies cheering for Stosur. The good thing for Mauresmo, though, is if she can get through the early rounds, the rest of her draw is pretty good.
The question, of course, is will the draw stand? Can the Russians who were so successful last season stay healthy? Anybody with talent can have one great year. What happens to them the next year? So far, some of the promising players haven't been able to hang in there for two or three years in a row. Sharapova might have an advantage among the Russians as she is still under the age rule until April and hasn't played as many tournaments.
Barring any more withdrawals, there still are great potential quarterfinal matchups for this first major of the year. One can only hope that by the time the French Open rolls around Justine Henin-Hardenne, Kim Clijsters and Jennifer Capriati will be back. Combined with the young Russians, the depth of that field will have you shaking your head in the round of 16 saying, "that match could be semifinal material."
ESPN tennis analyst Pam Shriver won 21 singles and 112 doubles crowns, including 22 Grand Slam titles.