Melbourne: Belgium's Kim Clijsters is hot favourite to add the Australian Open to her US Open crown after five-time champion Serena Williams' injury withdrawal opened the door to new contenders.
Clijsters, 27, heads the list of challengers with compatriot Justine Henin returning from injury and question marks over world number one Caroline Wozniacki after a string of recent defeats.
Clijsters arrives in good form after reaching the Sydney International final, and will be desperate to atone for last year's shock 6-0, 6-1 defeat to Nadia Petrova in the third round.
But she said she was not looking beyond her first-round match-up with Dinara Safina, the 2009 finalist who is struggling for form after a back injury which sidelined her for much of last season.
"There can be so many surprises anyway in a Grand Slam. Tough players, new players that you don't expect to be doing well can be on a great run. So many things can happen," Clijsters said on Sunday.
"You really just try to focus on yourself, the way that you're playing. That's what I'm going to do: just try and find my best game out there."
The world number three, again a mainstay on the women's tour after taking a break to have a baby, underlined her credentials when she beat the top-ranked Wozniacki in the final of the year-end championships in Doha in November.
"I kind of wished that the season wasn't over yet, after the championships last year, because I was hitting the ball so well," Clijsters said.
"But I feel good (again now). I feel like I'm hitting the ball well and, injury-wise, there's no problems and that's obviously a big key here in Australia -- being fit enough to play these matches."
Denmark's Wozniacki, 20, is the youngest year-end number one since Martina Hingis in 2000, but critics point out she is yet to win a Grand Slam title -- an omission she can make amends for here.
Wozniacki, beaten by Clijsters in the 2009 US Open final, is in uninspiring form after three straight-sets defeats already this year, including her first match at the Sydney International.
But the feisty Dane insisted she deserved her top seeding and had "nothing to prove" in her first major tournament as world number one.
"I don't feel I need to prove anything to anybody," she said. "You don't become number one winning small tournaments or doing bad results."
"You know, I'm a good player, I've done great results. I won six tournaments last year. I don't have to prove anything."
Perhaps the most under-rated player is Russia's Vera Zvonareva, the 2010 Wimbledon an US Open finalist and current world number two.
Zvonareva demolished Venus Williams at an exhibition event in Hong Kong this month and is close to making her breakthrough. However, she also failed in round two in Sydney.
Meanwhile, Henin's comeback from retirement was derailed in June when she damaged ligaments in her right elbow in a fall, and is now playing through the pain barrier in recovery.
Russia's Maria Sharapova has been unable to reproduce the form that brought her three Grand Slam titles, following an operation on her right shoulder in October 2008.
Her slow recovery suffered another setback last week when she was beaten by unheralded Hungarian Greta Arn at the WTA tournament in Auckland.
The glittering field features no fewer than seven Slam winners with Clijsters, Henin, Sharapova and Venus Williams joined by Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ana Ivanovic and French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.
And Australian fans will be hoping that world number six Samantha Stosur can become the first local to win the Australian Open since Chris O'Neil in 1978.
First Published: Monday, January 17, 2011, 09:06