Henin-Hardenne emerges as one to beat - Sports News - Fanatics - the world's biggest events

Henin-Hardenne emerges as one to beat

By Darren Walton 12/01/2006 06:38:14 PM Comments (0)

Former champion Justine Henin-Hardenne has emerged as the player to beat in the lottery that is the Australian Open women's championship.

As the game's stars struggle for form and fitness after the Christmas layoff, Henin-Hardenne extended her winning streak on Australian hard courts to 14 matches just days out from the start of the season-opening grand slam at Melbourne Park.

With early favourite Kim Clijsters breaking down on the eve of the Open with a hip strain, her fellow Belgian has burst from the pack to become the standout selection in the wide-open Open.

The tournament will feature a record eight players to have topped the world rankings.

Up against the likes of Henin-Hardenne, Clijsters, Maria Sharapova, Venus and Serena Williams, Amelie Mauresmo and Martina Hingis, reigning queen Lindsay Davenport knows she has her work cut out adding a fourth grand slam trophy to her collection.

"There's no question it's an unbelievable time in women's tennis with so many players at the top and everyone's so close together you're going to have a lot of different players winning tournaments," Davenport said.

The American fell to Serena Williams last year, but the tournament was missing Henin-Hardenne, who returns to "defend" the title she won in 2004.

And the 23-year-old was oozing confidence after surging into the final at this week's Sydney International, an event Henin-Hardenne also took out in 2004.

"I'm very happy with the way I'm playing right now," the Belgian said after adding highly-rated Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova to her 2006 scalps which also include Hingis.

"I've been very powerful. I think I've never been as relaxed on the tennis court."

As is becoming increasingly common early in the season, injuries will again play a leading factor in who holds up the trophy on the last Saturday of the month.

The Williams sisters barely played after making spectacular returns last year with a grand slam apiece, Serena's coming in Melbourne and Venus's at Wimbledon.

Sharapova has been sidelined with a shoulder injury and only confirmed her participation this week, while Mauresmo's preparations were set back by a first-round defeat in Sydney.

Clijsters was considered a good bet to go the distance in Melbourne after accruing a superlative nine WTA titles last year, including her watershed effort in winning the US Open.

Henin-Hardenne aside, the ultra-consistent Davenport is the only frontline contender boasting form to speak of - that is, if you can call an unbeaten run in the Hong Kong exhibition event last week as any sort of gauge.

Frenchwoman Mary Pierce is the dark horse.

Eleven years after winning in Melbourne, the 31-year-old is back with renewed confidence after enjoying a career renaissance with runner-up appearances at the 2005 French and US Opens.

Many fans will be cheering for a fairytale comeback for Hingis, but a more realistic achievement for the seven-time finalist would be to make it into the second week.

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