Kuerten king of the hill he still must climb

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MELBOURNE, Australia (Sports Network) - The 89th edition of the Australian Open is ready to roll, and all the usual suspects are in place for a title run at the first Grand Slam event of the year.

Sampras, Venus, Agassi, Hingis, Kuerten, Davenport, Safin, Serena, Rafter, Seles, etc., are all chompin' at the bit to get this thing started.

Your defending champs are Americans Andre Agassi and Lindsay Davenport. But this year's top seeds are 2000 ATP Champions Race titlist Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil and the WTA's top-ranked star, Switzerland's Martina Hingis.

Agassi would like to put his shaky 2000 season behind him. After opening last year with a championship performance at the Australian Open, the American superstar failed to capture another tournament the rest of the way.

Andre's first Australian Open title came in 1995, the year he upset Sampras in the last all-American final here. The two-time Aussie Open champion, six-time Grand Slam titlist and career Grand Slam ace will open his Melbourne fortnight against unheralded Czech Jiri Vanek.

Kuerten, the reigning French Open champion and two-time winner at Roland Garros, piled up five titles last season, including his unexpected hoisting of the Tennis Masters Cup at the season-ending tourney in Lisbon. "Guga" clinched the Cup, and the coveted world No. 1 ranking, with a surprise victory over Agassi in the final in Portugal.

The top-seeded Kuerten will be opposed by fellow South American, Argentinian Gaston Gaudio, in the round of 128 Down Under.

Hingis is a three-time Australian Open champion and has reached the last four finals here. After winning three straight Aussie Open titles from 1997-99, the "Swiss Miss" lost to Davenport in last year's final.

Hingis paced the WTA with a whopping nine trophies in 2000, but she had a great deal of difficulty beating Venus and Davenport, who were a combined 5-2 against the cocky star.

The top-seeded Czech native will be opposed by Hungarian Katalin Marosi in the first round.

The second-seeded Davenport, seeking her second Australian Open title in as many years, will meet teenage Aussie Jelena Dokic in the opening round. The transplanted Dokic, who hails from Yugoslavia, will be the heavy crowd favorite in that one.

Venus Williams had a season for the ages in 2000. The loser of only four matches (35-4) all year, Venus laid claim as the woman to beat after stopping Davenport for Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships, and handling Russian upstart Elena Dementieva to snatch Olympic gold in Sydney. Venus also paired with sister Serena to capture the ladies' doubles gold at the Summer Games.

The third-seeded Venus will open her stay in Melbourne with a first-rounder against a yet-to-be-determined qualifier. Hmm...sounds like a tough one.

The legendary Sampras feels he's ready to win in Melbourne...but we'll just have to wait and see.

Pistol Pete could manage only a pair of titles in 2000, but the big one came at his unofficial home away from home -- the ancient lawns of Wimbledon. His seventh Wimbledon crown in eight years also made the great Sampras the all-time Grand Slam king, with 13 such championships.

Sampras is a two-time Aussie Open winner, with his last championship here coming in 1997. His first title Down Under came in 1994.

Some of the other big threats on the men's side are second-seeded U.S. Open champion Marat Safin, fifth-seeded 1999 Aussie Open champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Australian favorites Lleyton Hewitt and Patrick Rafter, the seventh and 12th seeds, respectively.

Safin stunned the tennis world by slapping around the mighty Sampras in last year's U.S. Open final. The big Russian stockpiled an ATP-best seven titles and battled for the world No. 1 ranking up until the last day of the 2000 season.

The veteran Kafelnikov has won French and Australian Open titles and has appeared in the last two finals at Melbourne Park.

The still 19-year-old Hewitt notched four titles a year ago, but has yet to capture his first-ever Grand Slam. Could this be the year?

Rafter, who has hinted that this could be his last season on the circuit, would love to add an Aussie Open trophy to his two U.S. Open crowns (1997-98). The 2000 Wimbledon finalist has battled right shoulder problems over the past two years and is beginning to tire of the week-in, week-out grind of the ATP.

Some of the other women vying for Aussie Open plaudits are fourth-seeded four-time champion Monica Seles, sixth-seeded Serena Williams, seventh-seeded 1995 winner Mary Pierce, and, dare I say it, eighth-seeded Anna Kournikova. In my opinion, the out-of-shape Seles has no shot at capturing a fifth Australian Open. The 1991, '92, '93 and '96 champ is out of her league against the likes of Hingis, Davenport, Venus, and Serena at this stage of her career.

Serena, the 1999 U.S. Open champion, has a real chance at titling in Melbourne, if she can get past Chinese Taipei's Janet Lee in the first round (insert yawn here).

Pierce, the reigning French Open queen, will need to overcome not only the opposition, but also a suspect right shoulder if she wants to claim a third career Grand Slam championship.

Kournikova will get a great deal of press and a substantial amount of fan attention, but don't expect to see her in the winners' circle, based on the fact that she's powerless against the top four or five players in the world. The Russian beauty will battle Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova in the first round.

If everything pans out according to plan in Melbourne, the men's semis will pit Kuerten against fourth-seeded Magnus Norman in a rematch of the 2000 French Open final, and Sampras versus Safin in a rematch of the 2000 U.S. Open final. The women's semis would pit Hingis against Seles and Davenport versus Venus.

Barring upsets, the sixth-seeded Agassi would tangle with the third-seeded Sampras in the quarters, while Venus and Serena would square off in a rematch of their 2000 Wimbledon semifinal (won by big sister) in the round of eight.

But things probably won't pan out according to plan, as is usually the case at the Slams, especially on the men's side. I envision a second straight Aussie Open title for Agassi in the men's draw, and I fully expect Venus to continue her dominance among the women.

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