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Women's Look Forward: Leipzig

For Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, we're heading into the home stretch. Some time in the next seven weeks, they will settle the #1 ranking -- possibly, depending on just what happens, for some time to come.

This week won't change things; Henin-Hardenne can't gain the top spot at Leipzig. The gap between the two is too large. But it will go far toward setting the tone of the period. Clijsters has historically been far better indoors than on any other surface (the litany of justification for that statement: She won her first title indoors. She won her first Tier III or better indoors. She won her first Tier II indoors. The first time she ever defended a title, it was indoors. The first surface on which she won multiple titles was indoors. Coming into this year, Clijsters had ten titles -- and seven of them were indoors). Compare that to Henin-Hardenne, who to this day has only one indoor title, and that fairly weak (Linz 2002) -- she had won six earlier titles, on clay, grass, and even hardcourts (rebound ace, but hardcourts) before winning that one.

This year, both players have improved their all-around results. Clijsters has won more tournaments than ever before, as well as earning a grass title, and Henin-Hardenne has won her first DecoTurf titles and her first Slams. So who has actually taken the greater strides? And how much has Clijsters been affected by her sundry highly disappointing losses? If Henin-Hardenne has improved enough, it probably won't matter how well Clijsters performs. But the matter isn't really proved yet.

And whoever wins here will have to earn the title. The last two weeks have featured relatively weak events -- to be expected at Bali, which was only a Tier III, but Shanghai was an absurdly weak Tier II. Not so Leipzig -- the top seed in qualifying was Maja Matevzic, who would have been the #8 main draw seed at Shanghai. And she lost first round in qualifying! Our rough cut is that every player seeded in Leipzig qualifying, and possibly even one or two of the unseeded players, would have made the Shanghai main draw. Plus Leipzig, although it's sorely lacking in players ranked #3-#9, has the top two in the world: Kim Clijsters is the #1 seed, Justine Henin-Hardenne #2. Then there is a big gap to #3 seed Anastasia Myskina, but we have half the players ranked from #10 to #20 in the draw: The #4 seed is Magdalena Maleeva, who has a real chance to return to the Top Ten; Daniela Hantuchova is #5, Nadia Petrova #6, Meghann Shaughnessy #7, and Silvia Farina Elia #8.

Below that, we have several more strong players: Jelena Dokic, Patty Schnyder, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Lina Krasnoroutskaya, Magui Serna, and Eleni Daniilidou are all Top 30, and Alexandra Stevenson just misses that ranking. Though the wildcards are a bit strange. It's easy to understand giving a spot to Anna-Lena Groenefeld, who is the top German prospect, but giving a wildcard to Elke Clijsters while denying one to Marlene Weingartner or Barbara Rittner? (Elke is no longer a kid, we must point out; she's old enough to have 20 events -- and a ranking of #389. She has 39 points -- fewer total points than sister Kim earned in her worst event this year.)

But even with the younger Clijsters in the draw, there are plenty of good matches. In the first round, the slumping #5 seed Hantuchova faces the rising young Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova (who also earns the #1 seed in doubles with Martina Navratilova, and how is that for nostalgia? It's not too bad a doubles field, either; Elena Likhovtseva teams with Nadia Petrova to earn the #2 seeds, and Els Callens and Janette Husarova are #3; Marion Bartoli, who made the U. S. Open semifinal with Myriam Casanova, is the #4 seed with Jelena Dokic). #8 seed Silvia Farina Elia opens against Elena Daniilidou, who hates indoors but really needs a win about now. We'll also see a solid match of unseeded players as Marie-Gaineh Mikaelian and Alexandra Stevenson try to make it back to the Top 30. Plus Patty Schnyder takes on Elena Likhovtseva.

In the second round, #1 seed Kim Clijsters would face Dokic, the Hantuchova/Kuznetsova winner faces the Likhovtseva/Schnyder winner, #3 seed Myskina takes on Krasnoroutskaya (or Fabiola Zuluaga), Magdalena Maleeva faces Francesca Schiavone in a contest that seeds Maleeva trying for the Top 10 and Schiavone hoping to hit the Top 25; Meghann Shaughnessy faces the Mikaelian/Stevenson winner, and Henin-Hardenne will put her 17-match winning streak on the line against giant-killer Magui Serna or Denisa Chladkova. It looks like we'll be writing much longer match reports this week than last.

The Rankings. Henin-Hardenne has 127 points to defend this week. That means that, even if she wins Leipzig, she will be a few dozen points (at least) behind Kim Clijsters. But, if Henin-Hardenne wins, it will bring her another step toward what would become an almost-certain #1 ranking eventually.

From there down to #9, there isn't going to be much happening. Serena Williams won't be defending her title, but her margin over Lindsay Davenport is enough that it won't matter; she'll stay #3. None of the next six players -- #4 Davenport, #5 Capriati, #6 Venus Williams, #7 Mauresmo, #8 Dementieva, and #9 Rubin -- played last year, and they aren't playing this year, so they'll stay in that order.

Below that, though, things get wild. #10 Anastasia Myskina is only 17 points ahead of Magdalena Maleeva, and she has finalist points to defend. Maleeva has one point to defend. That means that, unless Myskina makes at least the final, she'll fall out of the Top Ten, with Maleeva probably taking her place. Although Daniela Hantuchova (69 points to defend) and Nadia Petrova (33 points) are also within shooting distance; Hantuchova is 64 points behind Maleeva and Petrova is only about 110 points back.

Conchita Martinez, with 119 points to defend, will fall out of the Top 15, which probably means that Vera Zvonareva will hit #15 even though she isn't playing. Meghann Shaughnessy, with 109 points to defend, is also likely to fall.

And things will get even crazier next week, when Moscow comes off. We could well have three #10 players in the space of 15 days: Myskina now, Maleeva next week, and Ai Sugiyama or someone else the week after that once Maleeva's Moscow points come off.

We will, naturally, have regular updates on both the #1 ranking and the Top Ten in Daily Tennis.

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