SYDNEY, January 8 – World number one Serena Williams headlines a crack women's field featuring nine of the world's top 10 at the Sydney International, which starts here on Sunday.
With the addition of Belgian wildcard Justine Henin there will be four one-time world number ones in the women’s draw in the last major leadup tournament to this month’s Australian Open.
The men’s draw will play second fiddle to the strong women’s competition with French showman and world No.13 Gael Monfils the top seed ahead of Czech Tomas Berdych, Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka and Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt.
Serena Williams was named the 2009 International Tennis Federation women’s world champion after a year in which she captured two Grand Slam titles and went on to win the season-ending WTA Championships in Doha, sealing the No.1 ranking in the last event of the year.
But she also courted controversy when she was hit with a record fine and two years of probation for an outburst over a foot fault call in last September’s US Open semi-final in New York.
Williams, who will be seeking her 12th major title at the January 18-31 Australian Open in Melbourne, was beaten by eventual winner Elena Dementieva in the semi-finals of last year’s Sydney event.
The American this time will be up against Russian world number two Dinara Safina, Svetlana Kuznetsova (3), Caroline Wozniacki (4), Dementieva (5), Victoria Azarenka (7), Jelena Jankovic (8), Vera Zvonareva (9) and Agnieszka Radwanska (10).
Safina, Jankovic and Henin are all former world number ones, while Williams, Kuznetsova and Henin are Grand Slam champions.
This year’s tournament will be given added spice by the return of seven-time Grand Slam champion Henin.
The three-time Sydney champion, who kicked off the year at the Brisbane International after being away from the game for 20 months, says she is playing under no pressure.
"It’s great being back on the court and every match is important and every point is different," Henin said at the Brisbane tournament.
"I’m so happy being out there and that’s what I remember now — I feel no pressure now.
"The women’s draw is very impressive and it will be great to get some tough, competitive matches at the Sydney International before heading to Melbourne."
Frenchman Monfils played in the Brisbane International with his right shoulder heavily strapped, while two-time Grand Slam champion Hewitt suffered back spasms while playing in this week’s Hopman Cup in Perth.
Hewitt, a four-time champion of the Sydney International, has been troubled by injury over the last two years and his ranking has slipped to 22.
Also in the men’s draw will be 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis, Feliciano Lopez, a member of the champion Spanish Davis Cup team, and Frenchman Richard Gasquet.
The Sydney International, formerly the NSW Open, is one of the oldest tennis events in the world and celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.