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Nov 5th, 2003, 06:13 PM
Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne in race for No. 1 ranking

By BETH HARRIS, AP Sports Writer
November 4, 2003

AP - Nov 4, 5:31 pm EST
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LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport are out of the WTA Championships, leaving Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne in a race for the year-end No. 1 ranking.

Clijsters holds the top spot this week by a slim 135-point margin over No. 2 Henin-Hardenne. At stake in the season-ending championships is the $1 million winner's check and the chance to begin 2004 at the top.

``This started it all for me,'' said Clijsters, who upset the Williams sisters en route to winning last year's tournament.

``Staying No. 1 is not something that I focus on,'' she said Tuesday. ``If that's what I would be thinking about when I'm on the court, then I wouldn't be able to play my game and I wouldn't be able to focus. That's something I don't feel comfortable with.''

Clijsters became No. 1 for the first time in August when she won the WTA Tour stop in Carson, just down the freeway from Staples Center, where matches begin Wednesday night.

Henin-Hardenne had better results than Clijsters in the year's Grand Slam tournaments, winning the French and U.S. opens, each time over Clijsters. She was No. 1 for a week in late October, which ended Clijsters' 10-week stay at the top.

``I did everything I could this year; 2003 will be the year of my career,'' Henin-Hardenne said. ``The French Open was the victory of the emotion because it was my first victory in the Grand Slam. But the U.S. Open was more significant for me ... winning in New York, a tournament that I didn't like too much in the past.''


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Clijsters avenged one of those losses by beating Henin-Hardenne in a three-set final at Filderstadt, Germany, last month. That win prevented Clijsters from losing her No. 1 ranking.

``All the focus and the attention is really on the Belgian girls,'' said Jennifer Capriati, the fourth seed. ``They're going back and forth for No. 1, and they've had the most results lately.''

And the most drama.

They share an uneasy relationship, having known each other since they traveled together as junior players.

Things took an ugly turn recently when Clijsters' father, Leo, suggested that Henin-Hardenne's sudden physical development was suspect. Henin-Hardenne strongly denied any insinuations of doping.

``When you know you work so hard, you always give everything for this and you win two Grand Slams in the same year, you make people jealous. It's normal, I understand it,'' Henin-Hardenne said.

``But you don't have to make it public. If these persons have any problem with me, they come to me and talk to me, I don't have any problems.''

She said no one has personally apologized to her.

Clijsters is reluctant to discuss the situation. Asked if they are friendly, she replied, ``Oh yeah.''

``Everything has been blown out of proportion,'' she said. ``I don't really want to say too much about it because otherwise it will flare up again.''

Henin-Hardenne was circumspect about the difficulty of being close with someone who does the same job and comes from the same small country.

``Have we ever been really, really close friends? That is the question,'' she said. ``It's not easy every day. The respect is the most important thing and there is a lot of respect between us.''

Henin-Hardenne arrived in Los Angeles with a cold and fever, which has hampered her practice time. She won't play her first match until Thursday.

``I'm feeling a little bit better,'' she said between coughs. ``One year ago I was maybe going to be scared about playing, but this year it's different. I have more experience.''

For the Belgians to reach Monday night's final, they'll have to win three matches each during round-robin play. Clijsters is the No. 1 seed and leads the Red Group, followed by Amelie Mauresmo, Elena Dementieva and Chanda Rubin.

Henin-Hardenne is the No. 2 seed and leads the Black Group, followed by Capriati, Anastasia Myskina and Ai Sugiyama.

Mauresmo and Rubin open play Wednesday night, followed by Capriati vs. Sugiyama and Clijsters vs. Dementieva.

The top two players in each group advance to the semifinals.

This year's field was reduced from 16 to eight players and the format was changed from single-elimination after poor attendance plagued the tournament last year, its first time in Los Angeles.

The Williams sisters have been out of action since July. Serena had knee surgery in August, and Venus has a strained abdominal muscle. They each plan to return in January, along with Davenport, who recently had left foot surgery.


Updated on Tuesday, Nov 4, 2003 6:22 pm EST

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