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Hingis opens the Australian on a roll

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001

MELBOURNE -- Just after Martina Hingis put the final touches on her No. 1 ranking in November, a cell phone rang as she sat down for interviews.

"Hope that's not mine," she said before reaching into her purse. Hingis glanced at the caller's number, flashed a smile and quipped, "Just some admirer."

In an instant Hingis revealed some of the traits that guided her to the No. 1 spot a third time in four years: Given almost every situation, she possesses a quick, clever and confident return. While Hingis wasn't equipped with the lumberjack strength of her peers and had to pile up computer points instead of major titles, she held off the powerful Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams and Serena Williams by leaning on her stamina and savvy.

To Hingis, her top ranking wasn't hollow at all. It was well-earned. To others, Venus Williams was the supreme player last year after she won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

What about this year?

Once the first major of the season, the Australian Open, begins in Melbourne tonight, several questions will loom about the women's field:

Has the top-seeded Hingis begun to decode the Williams sisters, both of whom she may have to beat to reach the final?

Can Venus Williams, visibly tense last week, cope with expectations stemming from her success last year and the record-breaking $40-million Reebok deal she recently signed?

Will Serena Williams be motivated to play catch-up after watching her older sister capture all the attention?

Can Davenport slip in and pick up her second Australian Open title in two years?

Hingis won this championship in 1999, her most recent major title. After a productive off-season, she will step onto this perilously fast surface with a sharper net game, a refined strategy for defusing the top players and some early success.

Hingis and her new doubles partner, Monica Seles, ended the Williams sisters' 22-match winning streak at a tuneup event in Sydney. Saturday, Hingis squeezed past Davenport for a singles title in Sydney.

At any moment, Elena Dementieva or Kim Clijsters could pose a threat to the top names, but the same intrigue involving Hingis, Davenport and the Williams sisters is expected to pick up where it left off last year.

The men are in much the same position. In 2000, the next wave finally came to a crest when Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, 24, ended the season at No. 1, the first South American to gain the top ranking. In the final event, Kuerten completed an improbable takeover of Russian Marat Safin with a run that included victories over Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in the season-ending Masters Cup.

DOKIC PEEVED: Jelena Dokic, upset about the way she has been treated in Australia, will play instead for her native Yugoslavia in the Australian Open.

Dokic, 17, is unhappy with the way she has been portrayed by the media in her adopted country, and her outspoken father says the Australian Open draw is rigged against her. She faces Davenport in the first round.

Tournament officials confirmed today that Dokic asked to play for Yugoslavia rather than Australia on the WTA Tour this year. Dokic received a Yugoslav passport in November after traveling on an Australian passport for four years. She and her family left Yugoslavia six years ago.

Australian Open

WHEN: Tonight-Jan. 28.

WHERE: Melbourne.

SURFACE: Rebound Ace, a cushioned hard court.

TV: 11 tonight, ESPN2.

DEFENDING CHAMPIONS: Lindsay Davenport, women; Andre Agassi, men.

TOP SEEDS: Martina Hingis; Gustavo Kuerten.

PRIZE MONEY: $13.86-million. For the first time since 1995, men and women will receive equal prize money at the Open, the first of the four majors. Singles winners receive $830,500.

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