Asian hopes fade for Aussie Open success
Asian players go into the opening Grand Slam of the season with plenty still to prove, and at least one will be going home on Monday.
The region's best hopes at the Australian Open lie with Li Na and Zheng Jie, while Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm lurks as a dark horse.
But their numbers have been boosted with China's Han Xinyun coming through qualifying.
There are now 10 Asian women in the tournament, two more than last year, but only Taiwan's Lu Yen-Hsun in the men.
Once again Li and Zheng carry the baton for Asia. Li has crept up to No17 in the world and needs a good run to reinforce her reputation but Zheng has slipped down the rankings to No35 after abandoning the Chinese state sports system to manage her own career.
Others making the grade include China's Peng Shuai (No46), Indian underachiever Sania Mirza (No56) and Japan's 39-year-old Date Krumm at No64.
The veteran, who was once No4 in the world, made a comeback last year after more than a decade in retirement and has been showing some solid form, recently beating two top 20 players – Virginie Razzano and Nadia Petrova.
Other Asian women in the main draw are fellow Japanese Ayumi Morita (No91), Taiwanese pair Chan Yung-jan (No85) and Chang Kai-Chen (No94) and evergreen Thai star Tamarine Tanasugarn (No99).
But there is no Ai Sugiyama, who called it quits last year after 15 successive Australian Open campaigns, leaving just two Japanese to carry the flag next week.
Li has long been Asia's most high-profile player and continued her steady rise last year, winning through to the fourth round at Roland Garros and making her second Grand Slam quarter-final appearance at the US Open.
A first round exit at the ASB Classic in Auckland did not bode well but she bounced back with an impressive victory over US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki, now world number four, at the Sydney International last week.
She opens her tournament on Tuesday against New Zealand's Marina Erakovic.
Mirza, who won the mixed doubles title partnered by Mahesh Bhupathi last year, has a tough first round tie against French 26th seed Aravane Rezai.
She said her key focus this year was staying fit. "It's not that easy to win a Grand Slam singles title," she said.
"My target this year will be to stay fit for as long as possible and to play in as many matches as possible."
Once again, there is little hope for the Asian men, who have been in the doldrums for years.
While Japan's hottest new prospect Kei Nishikori climbed the rankings last year, he has since faded after an elbow injury forced him out of the Australian Open. It leaves Taiwan's Lu as Asia's only men's hope.
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