V. Williams returns, headlines slim field

Three former champs out, including S. Williams

Roddick, Agassi lead men

Australian Open

January 18, 2004|By Christopher Clarey | Christopher Clarey,THE NEW YORK TIMES

MELBOURNE, Australia - Women's tennis will have to wait until next month at least for the return of the Williams sisters. For now, the sport will have to settle for the return of just one.

While Serena is still not prepared to make a comeback after knee surgery and a six-month break, Venus is back here, warming up on the practice court and in front of the microphone for her first official tournament since she lost in the Wimbledon final to Serena in July.

"I am bursting with energy," said Venus, who will face the tenacious yet limited American baseliner Ashley Harkleroad in the opening round of the Australian Open, the year's first Grand Slam event, which begins today.

A year ago, Venus lost in a hotly contested Australian final as Serena won her fourth Grand Slam singles title in a row. At that stage, the sisters were the top two players in the women's game, but after six months of physical therapy and family tragedy for the Williamses, the top two players are now from Belgium: No. 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne and No. 2 Kim Clijsters.

Serena, who withdrew from the Australian Open last week, is No. 3, and Venus has plummeted to No. 11, her poorest ranking in six years. While Henin-Hardenne spent yesterday winning the Australian Open warm-up tournament in Sydney with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Amelie Mauresmo of France, Venus was at Melbourne Park, fielding blunt questions about the state of her health and more elliptical queries about the death of her half-sister Yetunde Price, who was shot and killed in September in Compton, Calif.

Those questions came before one of the men accused of murdering Price, Robert Maxfield, was arrested yesterday in Los Angeles.

"There are just a lot of emotional thoughts connected with that sort of thing," she said. "But I still want to win as much as ever in any case."

If Venus wants the chance to resume winning, she will have to stay healthy.

She resumed practice at the end of November and eased back into competition earlier this month by winning an exhibition tournament in Hong Kong. She will still be seeded third here despite her relatively low ranking. That decision was not embraced by Mauresmo, who would have been seeded third if player rankings had been respected.

Though the men's field, led by top-seeded Andy Roddick and second-seeded Roger Federer, is nearly at full strength, the women's field is not. Two former Australian Open champions, Jennifer Capriati (2001-2002) and Mary Pierce (1995), withdrew with injuries. Clijsters plans to play but is recovering from a sprained ankle which forced her to miss Sydney. Lindsay Davenport also plans to play despite straining a right shoulder muscle in Sydney. Even Henin-Hardenne is nursing a minor ankle sprain.

On the men's side, Carlos Moya, seeded seventh in Melbourne, may miss his first-round match against American James Blake after turning his right ankle in the men's final in Sydney yesterday against Lleyton Hewitt.

Roddick won the U.S. Open and finished last season at No. 1, but he is not yet a dominant figure. Since his victory in New York, he has failed to reach another final.

He has the most daunting first-round test of the seeded men, drawing Fernando Gonzalez, a Chilean who has beaten Roddick once on a hard court.

Andre Agassi, 33, the defending champion, has not lost here since 1999, although he missed the tournament in 2002 with an injury.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Tournament glance

Site: Melbourne Park

When: Today to Feb. 1

Top men's seed: Andy Roddick

Top women's seed: Justine Henin-Hardenne

Today's TV: 11 p.m., ESPN2

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