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Tennis' Australian Open gets in touch with its feminine side

Thanks in part to the return of Belgian stars Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, the women's draw appears to be more intriguing than the men's at the year's first tennis Grand Slam.

January 17, 2010|By John Pye

Reporting from Melbourne, Australia — In her Grand Slam comeback, Kim Clijsters upset Serena Williams en route to claiming the U.S. Open title.

Williams was really, really upset in that semifinal last September and it cost her the match and a record fine.

Four months later, the return of another Belgian from a premature retirement has bolstered the field at the Australian Open and created a compelling women's draw in the year's first Grand Slam tournament.

Justine Henin, who won seven Grand Slam singles titles before quitting in May 2008 while holding the No. 1 ranking, is only one tournament into her comeback but is hoping to emulate Clijsters' successful return.

Again, Williams is the defending champion.

While the men's champion at Melbourne Park is widely expected to come from the group of top-five players led by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic -- who've won the last three Australian titles -- the list of women's contenders is growing.

Clijsters, a former world No. 1 who married U.S. basketball player Brian Lynch and gave birth to daughter Jada during two years away from tennis, has quickly regained her form. She has won two titles in five tournaments, including the upset of Williams.

Upset being an understatement.

It was an obscenity-laced, finger-pointing tantrum directed at a line judge in a semifinal loss to Clijsters at the U.S. Open that cost Williams a record fine of $82,500. She also faces suspension from the U.S. Open if she has any serious outbursts at a major in the next two years.

Besides Clijsters and Henin -- a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion who retired in May 2008 while holding the No. 1 ranking -- Williams also has Maria Sharapova to contend with this year.

Sharapova won the 2008 Australian Open but was unable to defend her title last year after right shoulder surgery kept her off the tour for almost 10 months.

Then there are the other Russians: second-seeded Dinara Safina, a three-time Grand Slam finalist who is returning from a back injury; third-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova, the reigning French Open champion; and 2008 Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva.

The rivalries in the men's draw are already established.

Federer finished his last match in Melbourne Park in tears after a five-set final loss to Nadal cost him a chance of equaling Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles.

In the wake of that defeat, he married longtime girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec and won his first French Open title to equal Sampras' mark and complete a career Grand Slam of all four majors. He went on to add to the Grand Slam record and regain the No. 1 ranking by outlasting Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final, 16-14 in the fifth set. Three weeks later he became the father of twin daughters.

But just when he was on the cusp of a third consecutive major, he was upset in the U.S. Open final by Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina, ending the Swiss player's run at five straight titles in New York.

The win was a boost for Del Potro, who displaced Andy Murray at No. 4 last week to ensure he'll avoid the top three players at least until the semifinals at Melbourne Park.

In 2009, Federer lost to Murray in Doha, Qatar, to Nadal in Melbourne and to Djokovic at Miami in March.

Murray lost rankings points by not defending his Doha title this year but said he felt more confident than ever of ending his major drought after winning three singles matches for Britain at the Hopman Cup.

Federer complained of a sore right shoulder when he lost in the Doha semifinals this month to Nikolay Davydenko. But he has played down any injury concerns since arriving in Melbourne.

Del Potro, meanwhile, withdrew from an exhibition event at Kooyong because of a sore right wrist, casting doubt on his Open ambitions.

Henin has been on the mend, practicing last week in Melbourne to give her sore left leg a workout.

After the Brisbane final, she said she was exhausted, but encouraged by her efforts. She'd rallied from a set and a break down, then wasted two match points in a dramatic, seesawing encounter that Clijsters won, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (6).

"I'm so proud of what we did on the court," Henin said. "It was a drama from the beginning to the end."

Clijsters agreed the Belgian pair "set the bar pretty high for ourselves for the rest of the year."

The Australian Open will be a good test of whether they are up to the challenge.

Pye writes for the Associated Press.

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