Women's Week Two preview
If top-seeded Lindsay Davenport is going to win the Australian Open, she will most likely have to beat four former Grand Slam winners along the way.
MELBOURNE, Australia -- The opening week of the year's first Grand Slam came to a close under the scorching southeastern Australian sun, where officials implemented the tournament's Extreme Heat Policy for the third consecutive day. By 4 p.m. local time Sunday, the mercury had reached 42 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit).
Lindsay Davenport, the lone American left in either draw, advanced to the quarterfinals with a win over 14th-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova, setting up a showdown with No. 8 Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium.
Kuznetsova was the first of a potential parade of former Grand Slam winners Davenport will need to beat if she is to win her fourth career Grand Slam, her first since the 2000 Australian crown.
If Davenport gets by Henin-Hardenne, no easy task given the state of her ankle she injured in the third round, she faces a potential semifinal match against No. 4 Maria Sharapova. Former Slam winners Kim Clijsters, Martina Hingis and Anastasia Myskina are looming in the lower half of the women's draw.
The first week of any Grand Slam is a time to separate the pretenders from the contenders and set up a second week with fewer players, fewer matches, higher stakes and considerably more pressure.
Venus and Serena Williams have been around for a lot of those second weeks since they started playing the majors together in 1998, but both booked early passage out of Melbourne this year via early-round defeats.
Venus fell in the first round to No. 94 Tszvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, and a clearly less-than-fit Serena was eliminated by No. 17 Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia in the third round.
It was the earliest combined exit for the sisters at a Grand Slam since the 1999 French Open, when Venus lost in the fourth round and Serena was bounced in the third round.
Their departure gave rise, quite naturally, to questions about their continued viability on the circuit. Each won a Slam in 2005, both coming at the expense of Davenport. But at least two of their competitors, one of whom is enjoying a much-welcomed comeback, aren't quite ready to count the sisters out just yet.
"You know, they're still great players," said No. 2 seed Clijsters, last year's U.S. Open champion. "They can still win every tournament that they play. They still have the power and the ability. I think when they're at their best and they're at their fittest, they're the best athletes out there. They're great for the sport."
"Oh, both girls, I mean, they're such survivors," Hingis said. "I'm sure, you know, no one would have thought that Venus would win another Grand Slam last year, and she came out there and won Wimbledon. The same with Serena winning here last year. I'm sure they're gonna bounce back. It depends on them, how much they really want it. I don't think they're just gonna walk away, no."
It was left largely to others to assess the situation after neither sister illuminated much of anything in blink-of-an-eye perfunctory news conferences after their respective defeats. Serena smiled throughout her 3½-minute meeting with reporters after falling to Hantuchova, even allowing that her money was now on American James Blake to win the men's title here. But it was the hollowest of smiles.
Hingis is a win away from her first quarterfinal at a Slam since the 2002 Australian Open, when she lost in the final to Jennifer Capriati after holding four match points. But anyone who knows Hingis would tell you she never has been satisfied with making the last eight of anything.
She's a tennis diva who craves the big stage, and only a date with unseeded Australian Samantha Stosur (Monday, 3:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2) stands between her and a quarterfinal match with the Clijsters-Francesca Schiavone winner.
If she manages to get through both of those matches, Hingis would seem to have a good chance of making it to the final, with No. 3 Amélie Mauresmo of France most likely to be standing in her way if she advances that far.
That sort of result likely would outstrip even the most optimistic pre-tournament expectations for the talented 25-year-old, who's been playing as if she never dropped off the tour more than three years ago.
Still, Davenport is the No. 1 seed, so it's her tournament to win -- or to lose.
She's taking no chances with her balky ankle, as she'll need to be in good form physically to overcome four-time major winner Henin-Hardenne, who plays well above her No. 8 seed and is legendary for her competitiveness and fitness level.
"I'm going to go see the doctor later," Davenport said after her win. "Do an ultrasound or some kind of scan to see [what the problem is]. Right now, I'm OK with the test. It's just swollen. Obviously, if structurally there's nothing wrong, I'll put my foot up for 48 hours and hopefully the swelling goes down and it will be OK."
A win in Melbourne likely would go a long way toward easing the sting of losing those two finals last year to the Williams sisters.
Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the Australian Open for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com
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