January 11, 2009

A Strong Start

Unlike the men's tour which is geographically well spread out in the weeks before the Australian Open -- there were tournaments in Chennai and Doha last week in addition to those that make up the official AO Series -- the women are pretty well concentrated in or around the Outback. And in New Zealand one of my perennial favorites made her presence felt.

Elena Dementieva, who ended 2008 with a career high ranking of #4, took the top seed and the crown in Auckland's ASB Classic, proving that she's going to take my New Year's resolution for her seriously. She didn't have the most difficult draw, and thanks to a series of upsets, only faced one seeded player on her way to the championship. Elena powered through #5 Shahar Peer in the third round, admitting that the Israeli might have been addled by political protestors who objected to her appearance at the tournament. But with straight-set wins over all of her opponents, Dementieva showed that she's not just taking advantage of weaker players -- she's got some power herself.

But this week, Elena faces a much bigger battle in Sydney. At the Medibank International she's only been awarded the third seed, behind Serena Williams and Dinara Safina. Williams previously pulled out of last week's Hopman Cup with a hamstring injury while Safina lost a tough three-set match to Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova in the finals. Both are eager for their chance to challenge current world #1 Jelena Jankovic, who won't be playing this week, for her ranking and look to gain some momentum going into the year's first Grand Slam.

Incidentally last year's Australian Open champion, Maria Sharapova, will not be back in Melbourne to defend her title. The shoulder injury that kept her out of the Olympics, U.S. Open and most of the second half of last year continues to plague the former #1. And while I certainly hope for a speedy speedier recovery, I fear it may be some time until she's back on tour.

So -- let the battle begin!

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