Final Isn't No. 1 Thing

Times Staff Writer

Welcome to the new-look, very-forgiving format at the Bank of America WTA Tour Championships.

Case in point: Amelie Mauresmo of France played four matches, winning twice, yet it was enough to land her in tonight's final at Staples Center against defending champion Kim Clijsters of Belgium.

It just goes to show .500 can be a winning number in individual sports as well as team sports, as in the parity-addled NFL and NHL.

For Mauresmo, it was an incredible turnaround in a 24-hour span, going from a near-certain also-ran to a finalist in women's tennis' season-ending event. She completed the odd journey by defeating the soon-to-be No. 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-3, in 2 hours 13 minutes. That semifinal upset followed Clijsters' 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 victory against an injury-riddled Jennifer Capriati in 1 hour 25 minutes before an announced crowd of 8,825 Sunday.

Now, with Mauresmo playing for the title, it looks as though Elena Dementieva's Christmas present just keeps on growing. Dementieva took advantage of the collapse of Chanda Rubin's game Saturday in the final day of round-robin play, enabling Mauresmo to reach the semifinals and rebook her plane flight back to France.

Mauresmo watched the startling reversal on TV from her hotel room in Santa Monica and ran into Dementieva later on.

"I had to thank her," Mauresmo said, smiling. "And I just congratulated her on the comeback and thanked her for, you know, what can I say? When I thanked her, she told me it was for last year because I didn't come [and she got in]. Now it is very special conditions. It doesn't happen very ... it can only happen here actually."

Henin-Hardenne will become No. 1 when the rankings are released next week by the tour. Although she reached her goal of becoming No. 1 at season's end, Henin-Hardenne did not finish on a strong note on the court, losing her last two matches, to Ai Sugiyama of Japan in a round-robin match and to Mauresmo.

It was the only time she lost back-to-back matches in 2003.

"Next week I will be No. 1 until 2004, so that is great news," said Henin-Hardenne, who had been ill with a fever and sinus infection earlier in the event. "It has been an unbelievable season. I won two Grand Slams. I'm only 21.... Now I will be happy to have some rest even if I am disappointed I lost here. But you cannot win all the time."

Mauresmo played aggressively and did what few players do against Henin-Hardenne -- execute a thoughtful game plan that involved coming in and winning 31 of 45 points off approaches to the net. She stayed mentally strong after losing the second set and being broken in the opening game of the third.

"It is one of my biggest wins, even in my head, like the way I finished it off and the way I handled the loss of the second set today against a top player like Justine," Mauresmo said.

The Clijsters-Capriati match was no exception to the quirky theme of this tournament.

Clijsters won the final 10 games, seizing the momentum and never letting go after Capriati made an unfortunate miscalculation by calling the trainer in the second set. Capriati was up a set and a service break, leading 3-2 in the second. While the trainer worked on her aching hip flexors and administered therapy on the court, Clijsters sat in her courtside chair and calmed down. Her errant forehand finally started to find the court when they returned.

"That definitely made me believe more in my chances because she was playing really well in the first," Clijsters said. "And in that second set to then, she was serving incredibly well. I think in all the matches I played with her, she never served as well as I think she did for the first set and a half.

"Her serve changed straight-away then."

Said Capriati: "I guess by doing that, I broke up my momentum and gave her a little time to sit back and gather herself. Because she started playing better. I came out and just wasn't quite serving the same anymore.

"By the end of that first set, I was thinking to myself, 'I don't know if this goes three sets if I am going to be able to last.' At that point, I was just really hoping to try and end it in two sets."

Capriati said one of the best aspects of her game is her fitness and movement. But it appears a point of debate, considering she has lost 14 times in three sets this year, seven times against a top-five player.

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