Defending points could decide No. 1

Amelie Mauresmo officially took over the world No. 1 ranking this week, the third player in as many months to be ranked No. 1 in 2006. (Lindsay Davenport started the season No. 1, but Kim Clijsters moved past her following the Australian Open.)

I would say players would trade in the No. 1 ranking for a Grand Slam any day. That's really the goal of these top players: to win majors. As for the race for No. 1, on the safe side, it's probably going to be between Mauresmo, Clijsters, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Maria Sharapova.

"Every sport would love to have this much competition that we have," said Patty Schnyder, who is No. 9 in the world. "If you look back at the last eight Grand Slam winners, there have been eight different names, and that's really quite extraordinary.

"Until the few weeks before the end of the year, you aren't going to know who is No. 1, so it's great for the sport."

"There is not only one favorite player for the moment," said Elena Dementieva, who already has played No. 2 Clijsters, No. 3 Henin-Hardenne and No. 4 Sharapova this season. "There are a lot of good players who can reach the No. 1 position at the end of the year and win a Grand Slam title, so it's good. The competition is very tough this year and everyone has a chance to win, and it's going to be very interesting."

When breaking down the race, the one thing you have to look at is last year's results. The biggest winners in 2005 potentially have the most points to lose in 2006. For instance, Lindsay Davenport, who won six tournaments in 2005, has had injuries this season and could have trouble defending those points. It looks like it could be between Henin-Hardenne and Sharapova. Justine didn't play last fall, including the WTA Tour championships. Sharapova didn't play last summer and missed most of the fall season as well.

It's definitely not like it used to be: Chris or Martina, Monica or Steffi and Roger on the men's side. It's not clear cut that's for sure.

"I think the level of tennis is so high right now," said Sharapova. "The top 5 is very competitive. I'm looking forward to having a competitive end of the year for the No. 1 spot. Hopefully if all of us can produce some great tennis it will be very exciting at the end of the year."

The top four
No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo: She now has to have so much more confidence. Winning the WTA Tour championships was a stepping stone for her. Winning in Australia -- beating the top players and getting nervous, but being able to deal with it -- was huge. Everybody says Mauresmo gets nervous; well, everybody does get nervous, it's really how you deal with it, and she's dealing with it so much better.

"I think she's not really going for the big shots that many times and is playing more of a constant level, which is very high," said Schnyder, who has lost to Mauresmo twice this season. "With her, it was just maybe a confidence thing or a mental thing that was going on to win the big ones."

I like her chances everywhere. She's always been a believer that her best chance to win a Grand Slam is at Wimbledon because of her all-court game, where she can chip and charge and serve and volley.

No. 2 Kim Clijsters: It's a question of health with her, and injuries have plagued her this season. The Australian Open was rough with the hip and back injuries, then she sprained her ankle in the semifinals. When she plays well, she's so hard to beat because she plays great offense and defense and is so fast. It's just a matter of her being healthy. Clijsters has a ton of points to defend. She could make up some room at the French and Wimbledon.

No. 3 Justine Henin-Hardenne: She comes back from injury and illness and does pretty well right away. The clay is her best surface. She has the spins, the slices and she slides really well. I think she is the one to beat at the French Open. The rest of the year it can be anyone, but she has the game to win on all surfaces as well. But she just strained her knee at Indian Wells last week.

No. 4 Maria Sharapova: I see her desire to improve and work on things. That just shows me she's not satisfied with just winning Wimbledon or being where she is. I have to believe she has more Grand Slams in her.

"I have so much to look forward to, and so much more to work on," said Sharapova, "so many things that can make me even better than I am. As those things improve and I get better than I'll begin winning tournaments."

At Indian Wells, I saw her working out and doing so many fitness drills. She knows that's probably the most important thing for her is to get as strong as possible and beat the top players in back-to-back matches and recover well.

The key is to stay injury-free. It's a balance of not overdoing it and playing the right amount. It's not easy and I think she's trying to find that balance.

Mary Joe Fernandez won seven 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.