(ESPN tennis analyst Mary Joe Fernandez looks at the world's top-five players and how they will fare at the 2006 Australian Open)
1. Lindsay Davenport
Her goal is to win another Grand Slam event before she retires. (Davenport has three career Grand Slam victories, but none since the 2000 Australian Open). She came so close last year in the finals at Australia and Wimbledon and just wasn't able to close it out. For some reason, it becomes a mental battle for her once she gets to that final stage. Davenport is a smart player and doesn't get enough credit for that. I saw her in December, and she's in extremely good shape. You have to like her chances to win in Australia.
2. Kim Clijsters
She could be Davenport's biggest challenge because of her speed (although a hip injury suffered this week has her status for the Open in question). Clijsters has given Davenport a lot of trouble in the past, but Davenport beat her at the French Open and Wimbledon last year.
Clijsters had an amazing comeback in 2005. She didn't play in Australia last year, so she should be looking forward to playing Down Under. (Clijsters advanced to the final in 2004, the semifinals in 2002 and 2003.) When Clijsters is playing well, she's such a complete player because she plays the best defense of anyone and also can be aggressive and consistent at the same time. The Rebound Ace courts will suit her game.
3. Amelie Mauresmo
She thinks this could be her year to win a Grand Slam event. Mauresmo ended 2005 by winning the WTA Championships, and that was a huge breakthrough
for her. It also was the biggest event she has won because she had to beat players she hadn't fared well against in the past. Mentally, that will help her a lot.
Mauresmo finally figured out that she has to use her variety because she's one of the most talented players on the tour. She's the best player never to win a Grand Slam event, and Australia is where she made her breakthrough, reaching the finals in 1999 (the only time she advanced to a Grand Slam final). I'm a big believer that you play well where you have good memories.
4. Maria Sharapova
She has had to deal with health problems; that's No. 1 right now. Sharapova struggled at the end of 2005 with a pectoral strain and didn't play much in the second half of the season. That's really the only thing holding her back.
I love her game and attitude. She is starting to become more of a complete player and is looking to be more aggressive. Let's see how she is healthwise because, if healthy, she will be one of the players to beat because she has such big belief in herself.
5. Mary Pierce
She was a great comeback story in 2005. After last year's French Open, I didn't think Pierce was going to be able to keep it up but she played even better. Until the final of the WTA Championships, she played better than everybody else.
Pierce has been serving huge and winning her service games easily, which allows her to really swing freely in her return game. She's fit and healthy, and you can see she's enjoying herself on the court.
Grand Slam Champs Worth Watching
She's another one with question marks because of her health. Last year, whenever Henin-Hardenne played, she played really well. (She won four straight
titles, highlighted by beating Pierce at the French Open.) We'll see how she is physically. Mentally, she is very strong, and -- like Mauresmo -- has the most variety on the tour, including the one-handed backhand that separates them from everybody else.
Serena and Venus Williams
Injuries are a concern for both. It's such a vicious cycle for Serena. She plays and gets hurt. If she can get herself fit again, there's no reason Serena can't get back to winning majors and being the threat she was.
I thought Venus would get a boost last year after winning Wimbledon, but she had injuries as well. When Venus is healthy, her best is better than everybody else's. But again, because of the injuries and the amount of time the sisters have had off, other players are not as intimidated anymore and believe they can beat the Williamses.
She was the queen of the Australian for a while. She's one who outsmarts her opponent and uses strategy to her advantage. It's as though you are watching a chess game with Hingis. I really think she'll do well. Playing in Team Tennis got her fighting spirit back, and she obviously missed tennis enough to give it another try.
The shot that let Hingis down was her serve, so let's hope she has worked on and improved that area of her game. Her head is so good that I think she still can play with the top players.
Pay Attention To
Elena Dementieva is one you have to beat because she won't go away. Her serve has prevented her from winning the big one, and I don't know whether she can overcome that because it has become so mental. If she can do so, then Dementieva becomes a contender because she hits the ball so fast and so well off the ground. Despite her serve, she's always around and competing into the late rounds.
Ana Ivanovic's fitness was one of the things she needed to work on, but she hits the ball really cleanly and is dangerous.
Svetlana Kuznetsova: I always thought she and Sharapova were the best of the young Russians. She's such a good athlete, but she really struggled last year.
Nadia Petrova is another player who is dangerous, and it's just consistency that's missing in her game. She did win her first tournament in 2005, which should give her some confidence.
Patty Schnyder always plays well in Australia. I used to play against her, and she was known for how unpredictable she was; but now, it's just the opposite. Schnyder uses her spin and is left-handed (the only lefty ranked in the top 30), which gives players trouble.
Nicole Vaidisova is young (16), and she had a terrific 2005 season. She's tall and strong, and she moves well. She still needs some maturing, but that will come with time. Vaidisova can provide a huge scare at any moment.
Mary Joe Fernandez won 7 singles and 17 doubles titles during her 15-year career on the WTA Tour. She is providing ESPN.com with analysis throughout the Australian Open.