SYDNEY, Australia -- The most dominant woman in tennis needs only to win the Australian Open to complete the ''Serena Slam,'' and she gets her shot at a fourth consecutive major starting Monday.
While others were setting modest goals for the new year, Serena Williams made a grand statement suggesting that she planned to remain atop the rankings.
''I want to be undefeated'' in 2003, she said.
She won the French and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon in 2002; she never has won the Australian. She skipped warmup tournaments after partnering James Blake on the U.S. team that won the Hopman Cup in Perth last week.
''Now I've had a long break, and I'm rejuvenated and really excited,'' Williams said. ''Obviously, the Australian Open is a goal for me.
''I haven't begun to play my best,'' added Williams, who is bidding to become the fifth woman to hold four Grand Slam titles at once. ''I'm sure everyone is excited to hear that.''
Her sister, Venus, is seeded second. She was the runner-up to Serena at Roland Garros, the All England Club and Flushing Meadows in 2002. A four-time Grand Slam winner and an equally powerful hitter, she's the best contender among the other women.
Venus limped out of the season-ending WTA Championships with a lower leg strain while trailing Kim Clijsters in the semifinals and hasn't played since, but she is expected to regain full fitness and wouldn't meet a top-10 player until the quarters.
The Williams sisters are on opposite sides of the draw in Melbourne for the first time, meaning they can meet only in the final.
Venus' half of the draw includes Jennifer Capriati, bidding for a third consecutive Aussie title, fifth-seeded Justine Henin and ninth-seeded Lindsay Davenport, who won at Melbourne Park in 2000.
''Of course I'm confident I can win it,'' said Capriati, who hasn't won a title in 12 months and lost at Sydney in the second round last week. ''I was nervous last year when I had to defend my title but I crossed that battle.
''I'm defending again but I've done it before. ... I know what I can do.''
No. 4 Clijsters upset Serena to win in Los Angeles last November, and they're in the same half of the draw here. Clijsters also has an easier run to the semis than Serena, who opens against Emilie Loit of France and could face four-time Australian champion Monica Seles, seeded sixth, in the quarters.
Clijsters made the singles and doubles finals in Sydney to increase her confidence. She spent the year-end break with boyfriend Lleyton Hewitt and his family in Adelaide.
''Last year, I wasn't even close to playing as well as what I am now, and I still made the semifinal of the Aussie,'' the 19-year-old Belgian said. ''For your confidence, it's definitely better to be here from the start.''
Davenport, who has the power to match the Williams sisters and appears fitter than ever, has an outside chance.
She had surgery on her right knee a year ago and missed the first three majors. But she reached the semis at the U.S. Open and got back into the top 10. Davenport made the final of a warmup tournament in Sydney with tough wins over Daniela Hantuchova and Tatiana Panova and said she feels her luck is changing.
On the men's side, the top-ranked Hewitt desperately wants to be the first Australian to win the country's Grand Slam since 1976.
Hewitt has never gone beyond the fourth round at Melbourne Park -- recovering from chicken pox last year, he was a surprise first-round loser to Alberto Martin of Spain -- but has changed his lead-up preparations, skipping tournaments that he's won in previous years and sticking to practice.
Since retaining No. 1 spot for the second year by defending his Tennis Masters Cup title, the 21-year-old Hewitt has played only at the Hopman Cup, where he lost to Blake and the Czech Republic's Jiri Novak.
Despite those losses, he's feeling OK.
''I feel relaxed enough. You just don't know until you go out there Monday or Tuesday and see how you go,'' Hewitt said.
''The first few rounds in Grand Slams, if you can get through those matches, I feel like I've played enough big matches now that I'm going to get better and better.''
Local expectations didn't bother him.
''I feel fine with that pressure, that expectation of sitting up there and being the No. 1 Australian,'' he said. ''I don't have too many problems with that.''
He opens against a qualifier but could face a difficult third-round match against former No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten.
Andre Agassi injured his wrist in a warmup tournament last season and couldn't defend his title. After losing September's U.S. Open final to Pete Sampras, he finished without a Grand Slam title for the first time in three years.
The 32-year-old American was forced out of the Masters Cup with a hip problem in November after losing two matches, but overcame the setback to reach the final this week of the Melbourne exhibition tournament.
''I've always come here ready to go, physically eager and then I've been really patient when it comes to letting my game come into its own,'' said Agassi, who has three Australian championships among his seven Grand Slam titles. ''I feel good about my movement on court and the way my body feels.''
His first big test comes against Guillermo Canas or 1999 Australian champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the fourth round.
Marat Safin has the firepower to win here but might lack the concentration to hang on for seven matches. He lost the final to Thomas Johansson in 2002, when he wilted in the heat.
The 2000 U.S. Open champion injured his right shoulder Wednesday at Sydney, blaming the inflammation of his rotator cuff on not enough time off between helping Russia win the Davis Cup over France and the start of this season.
But he expects to be back in shape for his opening match against Dutchman Raemon Sluiter and said he'd resort to painkillers if his shoulder wasn't up to serving as the tournament progressed.
The men's draw has been diminished by withdrawals but should offer as many surprises as 2002, when the bulk of top-seeded players tumbled out in the first three rounds.
Among the high profile absentees are: No. 9-ranked Tim Henman and fellow Briton Greg Rusedski; No. 11 Tommy Haas; 14-time Grand Slam titlist Pete Sampras; defending champion Johansson; and Chile's Marcelo Rios, runner-up in 1998.
The women's draw is missing only Amelie Mauresmo of France, No. 9 Jelena Dokic, who is boycotting after a fallout with tennis authorities in Australia, and three-time winner Martina Hingis.
© 2018. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us