Top Spot At Stake As WTA Tour Championships Begin -
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Top Spot At Stake As WTA Tour Championships Begin

Top Spot At Stake As WTA Tour Championships Begin

Photo By Cynthia Lum By Richard Pagliaro

Life may be lonely at the top, but Belgian rivals Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne will both be trying to take the top spot alone this week. The Bank Of America WTA Tour Championships begin today at the Staples Center in Los Angeles with a new format and the prospect of a new year-end No. 1.

With a trio of former top-ranked players — Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport — all sidelined while recovering from injuries, the tournament shapes up as a battle between the Belgians for season-end supremacy in the sport.

Play begins today as Amelie Mauresmo meets Chanda Rubin in the evening's first match, followed by Jennifer Capriati vs. Ai Sugiyama with Clijsters meeting Elena Dementieva in this evening's finale. ESPN2's coverage of the tournament begins today at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time.

A year ago, the fifth-seeded Clijsters conquered top-seeded Serena Williams, 7-5, 6-3, to claim the tournament title and champion's check of $765,000. Clijsters, who snapped Williams' 18-match winning streak in earning her first win over the two-time U.S. Open champion, is eager to defend her title that helped launch her toward the top of the rankings.

"I think it's great to see it's going to depend on the last tournament of the year," Clijsters said. "If it would happen it would be great. Especially at this tournament, it's what started it all for me."

The 21-year-old Henin-Hardenne succumbed to Clijsters in the 2002 tournament quarterfinals, but scored victories over her country woman in both the Roland Garros and U.S. Open finals this year and has set her sights on concluding the best year of her career by taking home the top rank.

"If I can finish the year No.1, it would be perfect," Henin-Hardenne said. "I'd like to come back in 2004 as No.1."

In her two career appearances at the Championships, Henin-Hardenne has yet to surpass the quarterfinals. She enters the event this year battling a cold and fever that have sapped her strength a bit, but Henin-Hardenne has received a bit of a reprieve in her recovery efforts as she's not scheduled to play today.

A year after miniscule attendance marred the WTA Tour's season-ending tournament's debut at the Staples Center, tournament organizers have made several changes in an effort to attract the masses missing in action last year. The most obvious change is the 165 foot banner advertising the event that will cover the side of the Staples Center. Such public promotion may be the most visible alteration for the November 5-10th tournament, but the changes aren't merely cosmetic.

Known as the Home Depot Championships last year, the tournament has a new title sponsor and is now known as the Bank of America WTA Tour Championships presented by Porsche. Formerly staged as a 16-player single-elimination event, the tournament now features a round-robin format, the doubles draw has been cut in half from eight teams to four teams and day sessions, which generated disappointing attendance last year, have been eliminated. As a result, fans are ensured of seeing at least six of the top eight women in the singles draw in every session except for the semifinals and final.

The players believe the changes will enhance the event for both competitors and crowd.

"For the crowd I think it's the best format, for the players, too," said Clijsters. "You see the best players play against everybody."

The $3 million season-ending event may be the most lucrative tournament in women's tennis, but it provided a paucity of people in the stands during a disappointing debut at the Staples Center in Los Angeles last November. At times, it seemed there were almost as many people on court as there were in the 20,000-seat arena.

In the absence of three of the top American women, a strong performance by Capriati is critical to attendance and domestic television ratings.

In recent years, Capriati has become the Evander Holyfield of tennis: a fierce fighter who often displays a huge heart in engaging in thrilling slugfests with opponents yet often comes up short in the biggest battles. In the U.S. Open semifinals, Capriati twice served for the match against Henin-Hardenne, but could not close in suffering a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(4) victory that was undoubtedly one of the highest-quality U.S. Open matches in years. The match spanned three hours and three minutes and an even greater expanse of emotions. It was a classic clash that had it all — spectacular shotmaking, remarkable retrievals and compelling comebacks. In the end, it was an extraordinary effort from both players, who poured their heart and guts onto the court, competing as if their careers depended upon the outcome.

Ultimately, Capriati came up short again. The fifth-ranked Capriati has beaten only one top five-ranked player since capturing the 2002 Australian Open crown and has said in the past she has trouble picking up the ball indoors. But Capriati has the potential to challenge both Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne and fully favors the round-robin format.

"I think it'll be exciting," Capriati said. "Because if you lose the first match it doesn't necessarily mean you're out of it. You can really get into it. Especially for people who are slow starters, or not used to the court, it's good."

For more information on the tournament and live scoring, please visit the WTA Tour Championships web site.

Bank of America WTA Tour Championships Television Schedule

ESPN2 (All times are Eastern)

November 5th — 10:30 p.m. - 12 a.m.
November 6th — 5-6:30 p.m.
November 6th — 10:30 p.m. - 12 a.m.
November 7th — 5-6:30 p.m.
November 8th — 12:30-2 a.m.
November 8th — 4-6 p.m.
November 9th — 1-2:30 a.m.
November 9th — 3:30-6:30 p.m.
November 10th — 10 p.m. - 12 a.m.
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