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Williams injury leaves Australian Open up for grabs

Tennis fans could hardly have guessed that when Serena Williams cut her foot in a Munich restaurant last August, the race for the 2011 Australian Open would be thrown wide open.

sports Updated: Jan 12, 2011 13:04 IST

Tennis fans could hardly have guessed that when Serena Williams cut her foot in a Munich restaurant last August, the race for the 2011 Australian Open would be thrown wide open.

Serena has towered over the Australian Open in recent times, winning four of the past six titles, including the last two in a row.

But complications to her foot injury have meant Serena will not be making the trip to Melbourne this year and the task of picking a potential winner has suddenly become much tougher.

The early favourite is US Open champion Kim Clijsters, who arrived in Australia last week with her family in tow and brimming with confidence.

The Belgian world number three underlined her credentials when she beat the top-ranked Caroline 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."

Clijsters showed she had not lost any of her 2010 form when she downed Wozniacki in an exhibition in Thailand at the start of the year.

The 27-year-old Belgian will also be desperate to atone for 2010, when she entered the Australian Open as one of the hot favourites but crashed out in the third round to Nadia Petrova 6-0, 6-1 in one of the most-lopsided matches of the tournament.

Denmark's Wozniacki ended the year as the women's world number one, reaching the peak of the game without having won a Grand Slam.

The 20-year-old Dane is the youngest year-end number one since Martina Hingis in 2000, but this week's second-round Sydney International loss has not helped convince critics she is worthy of the top ranking .

Winning the Australian Open would silence her doubters in the best possible way and end comparisons with Russia's Dinara Safina and Serbia's Jelena Jankovic, who also became number ones without winning a Grand Slam.

Safina and Jankovic are in the field but both look to have missed their chances at a Grand Slam.

Perhaps the most underrated player is Russia's Vera Zvonareva, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist and current world number two.

Zvonareva demolished Venus Williams at an exhibition event in Hong Kong last week and is close to making her breakthrough. However, she also failed in round two in Sydney.

Other talking points are whether former champions Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova can win another title.

Henin's comeback from retirement was derailed in June when she damaged ligaments in her right elbow in a fall while losing to Clijsters at Wimbledon.

Her recovery has been slow, but trainer Carlos Rodriguez said the 28-year-old "definitely has three great years at the highest level ahead of her".

She competed successfully at the Hopman Cup in Perth and cannot be discounted.

Sharapova has struggled to reproduce the form that brought her three Grand Slam titles, following an operation on her right shoulder in October 2008.

Her comeback suffered a setback last week when she was beaten by unheralded Hungarian Greta Arn at the WTA tournament in Auckland.

Australia 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.

Stosur broke through in 2010 as she reached the final at Roland Garros and won in Charleston, but she still has plenty of questions regarding her mental strength on the big stage.

Other contenders include perennial Melbourne under-achiever Venus Williams, who is a seven-time Grand Slam winner, French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and powerful Belarusian Victoria Azarenka.

However, a real dark horse could be left-handed Czech Petra Kvitova, who won the Brisbane International on Saturday with a flawless display of clean hitting.