- Kamakshi Tandon
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- Unlike the men's field, there was the real possiblity of a lopsided women's Australian Open draw because two of the main contenders, Ana Ivanovic and Venus Williams, are both ranked outside the top four.
But the luck of the draw has seen the brackets turn out to be quite evenly balanced. The top half is flanked by the Serbs, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, with a Russian in between -- Dinara Safina. The bottom half is flanked by the Williamses, Serena and Venus, with another Russian in between -- Elena Dementieva.
But it's not just at the top that the field is crowded. A host of young players are pushing their way up and look prepared to cause some damage in Melbourne. They have not been so evenly scattered, landing mostly in the bottom half, and could create a few strategically important upsets among the half-dozen or so favorites for the title. The group of rising stars includes Agniezska Radwanska, Carolina Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka, Alize Cornet, Dominika Cibulkova and is being expanded further by even younger players like Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Here's how the jostling women's field breaks down:
Jelena Jankovic couldn't have asked for a better setup as she tries to buttress her No. 1 ranking with a Grand Slam title. Vera Zvonareva is arguably the least threatening of the players among the top eight seeds, Nadia Petrova is only just over a bout of viral meningitis and many of the others in this section -- Marion Bartoli, Agnzes Szavay, Sybille Bammer, Lucie Safarova -- have tumbled precipitiously in the past year or two. Sania Mirza is also returning after an injury layoff, having missed most of last season after wrist surgery.
In short, unless Zvonareva catches fire, Jankovic will have to beat herself to exit before the semifinals. This is the weakest quarter in another otherwise solidly packed draw.
First-round matches of note: Sybille Bammer (24) vs. Lucie Safarova
Quarterfinal projection: Jankovic def. Zvonareva
Top seeds: Ana Ivanovic (5), Dinara Safina (3), Carolina Wozniacki (11) Alize Cornet (15), Anna Chakvetadze (17)
This quarter starts with a bang and keeps getting better. There are three intriguing first-round matches: Dinara Safina goes up against the pugnacious Alla "Don't be too sexy for your shirt" Kudryavtseva; fallen phenom Jelena Dokic takes on stalled phenom Tamira Paszek and Daniela Hantuchova faces Casey Dellacqua in a battle between two of last year's Australian Open standouts who have been struggling to regain their confidence after injuries.
We'll also learn the status of former top five Anna Chakvetadze, who hasn't been the same since an armed robbery in her Moscow home at the end of 2007.
Then it's on to the serious business, with Ivanovic likely facing Safina in a blockbuster quarterfinal match. But Ivanovic, who had some very shaky outings in the past six months, might first have to survive a fourth-round encounter with fast-rising Dane Caroline Wozniacki.
First-round matches of note: Dinara Safina (3) vs. Alla Kudryavtseva; Daniela Hantuchova (19) vs. Casey Dellacqua; Jelena Dokic (WC) vs. Tamira Paszek.
Quarterfinal projection: Safina def. Wozniacki
Can anyone stop the scheduled Venus Williams-Elena Dementieva clash in the quarters? Dominika Cibulkova is expected to give it a good try in the fourth round against Dementieva, and Flavia Pennetta will try to extend her winning run over Venus at the same stage. But neither is likely to pull it off, and while there are plenty of capable players in this section (e.g. Sam Stosur), there is no one quite strong enough to derail either of the two top seeds in this section.
There could be a slight edge to the quarterfinal encounter, given that Dementeiva has mused aloud about whether the Williamses predetermine the outcome of their matches. The Russian has had the best possible start to the year, winning Auckland and Sydney in a run that included defeats of Safina and Serena. But Venus has won their last four encounters, including a three-setter at the year-end championships last fall.
First-round match of note: Alexandra Wozniack (30) vs. Sabine Lisicki
Quarterfinal projection: Elena Dementieva def. Venus Williams
Serena Williams says she feels like the best player in the world at the moment (at any moment, actually), and few players in her quarter are likely to put up much of an argument. Svetlana Kuznetsova has the innate ability to challenge the younger Williams, but is nursing an abdominal injury and hasn't won a major match against a top player in quite some time.
Serena might face a test from Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round or Agniezska Radwanska in the quarters, but both will need some help from her to pull off the victory. Amelie Mauresmo had some encouraging results in Brisbane last week and could meet Azarenka in the third round for the right to face Serena.
Also in this section, Anna-Lena Groenefeld continues her comeback from the effects of a traumatic coaching relationship and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova tries to build on the results that saw her go from the 200s to No. 45 last year. There's the extremely slim possibility of a fourth-round meeting between the Bondarenko sisters, Alona and Kateryna.
Another thing to watch: Will Nicole Vaidisova flame out early again, or win a couple of rounds and start doing justice to her landmark talent?
First-round match of note: Nicole Vaidisova vs. Ayumi Morita
Quarterfinal projection: Serena Williams def. Radwanska
Jankovic def. Safina, Dementieva def. Serena Williams
Jankovic def. Dementieva
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
Considering the way 2008 ended, our instincts say either Venus or Serena Williams will walk about from Melbourne victorious. But the women's field has a bevy of youngsters just waiting for the right opportunity.