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Playing It Point by Point

Times Staff Writer

It was an international schedule fit for a travel guide writer ... or a professional tennis player pulling out all the stops to qualify for the season-ending WTA Championships.

Vera Zvonareva of Russia hit six cities in six countries in less than two months -- ranging from Beijing to Moscow to Linz, Austria, before finishing in Philadelphia. Jennifer Capriati settled for one quick flight to Philadelphia.

Which is why Zvonareva will be playing at Staples Center later this week and, barring injury or illness to the others, Capriati won’t be appearing in Los Angeles, missing the season finale for the first time since 1999. Venus Williams fell short as well but at least made a legitimate attempt to qualify, playing three events after the U.S. Open.

The final two spots in the eight-player singles field went to 2001 champion Serena Williams and Zvonareva. They will join No. 1-ranked Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo of France and four other Russians: French Open champion Anastasia Myskina, Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova, U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva, a finalist this year at the French Open and U.S. Open.

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On Sunday, the players were placed into two groups. In the Black Group are Mauresmo, Kuznetsova, Sharapova and Zvonareva. In the Red Group are Davenport, Myskina, Dementieva and Williams.

Round-robin play begins Wednesday night, and there are at least five things to ponder before the first serve is hit at Staples. One thing is clear about 2004. Call it the Year of the Russian.

Changing of the Guard

Talk of all-Williams and all-Belgian finals the last couple of years quieted by late 2004. This year was the first since 1998 that the Williams household went without a Grand Slam singles title.

Serena reached one Slam final, losing to Sharapova in straight sets at Wimbledon. The best Slam result for Venus was a quarterfinal finish at the French Open.

Belgians Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters met in the Australian Open final, with Henin-Hardenne winning. After that, they practically disappeared because of a virus (Henin-Hardenne) and a wrist injury (Clijsters), though Henin-Hardenne resurfaced to win the Olympics. Henin-Hardenne qualified for the Championships but is off the tour until 2005 to recuperate.

Russia House

No misprint. More than half the field is Russian.

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Three of the four Slams went to Russians in 2004, and two of the four majors featured all-Russian finals. Myskina defeated Dementieva in Paris and Kuznetsova beat Dementieva in New York. Myskina was the first Russian female to win a Grand Slam singles title.

The pioneer for these Russian women, Olga Morozova, looked at a group of reporters in the players’ lounge at the French Open after Myskina’s breakthrough. She reminded them that they were writing, for years, that the “Russians were coming.”

“You ask, we deliver,” she said, smiling.

And then some.

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Lansdorp Factor

He rarely leaves Southern California, but well-known tennis coach Robert Lansdorp was a major factor at the Slams in 2004. Sharapova has trained with him periodically in the South Bay the last few years, and Myskina is a former Lansdorp pupil.

Myskina’s progress in the rankings can be directly traced to her work with Lansdorp. Though she doesn’t often give credit to her former coach, insiders long ago recognized the major difference in her play.

The third player in the field with a Lansdorp connection is Davenport. She worked with him when she was a teenager and the evidence exists in her clean, efficient groundstrokes.

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The Race for No. 1

It’s down to two for the year-end No. 1 ranking: Davenport and Mauresmo. Davenport’s renaissance has been remarkable. In 2003, she finished the year ranked fifth and won only one title.

This year, Davenport comes into the Championships ranked No. 1 and has won seven titles, quieting the retirement buzz. Mauresmo, who has won five tournaments this year, needs a successful tournament, coupled with a weak showing by Davenport, to claim the season-ending top ranking.

The Fans

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As in, will there be any? The event has struggled at the gate the last two years, though last year was an improvement over the dismal 2002 numbers.

Tickets have been available through local tennis clubs at deep discounts, and officials said that the numbers are running about even to last year. But this time, organizers won’t have as many excuses for a light turnout.

The tournament is in its third year in Los Angeles, more than an adequate time period to gain a foothold. And unlike last year, two players with strong Southern California followings, Serena Williams and Davenport, qualified for the event.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

WTA Championships

The singles round-robin groups for the WTA’s year-end tournament at Staples Center beginning Wednesday:

RED GROUP

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* Lindsay Davenport, U.S.

* Anastasia Myskina, Russia

* Elena Dementieva, Russia

* Serena Williams, U.S.

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BLACK GROUP

* Amelie Mauresmo, France

* Svetlana Kuznetsova, Russia

* Maria Sharapova, Russia

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* Vera Zvonareva, Russia

Doubles Semifinals

* Virginia Ruano Pascual-Paola Suarez vs. Cara Black-Rennae Stubbs

* Nadia Petrova-Meghann Shaughnessy vs. Kuznetsova-Elena Likhovtseva

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SCHEDULE

* Wednesday, beginning at 6:30 p.m., three singles matches.

* Thursday, beginning at 6:30 p.m., three singles matches.

* Friday, beginning at 6:30 p.m., three singles matches.

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* Saturday, beginning at 1 p.m., three singles matches.

* Sunday, beginning at 1 p.m., semifinal singles and doubles matches.

* Nov. 15, beginning at 6:30 p.m., singles final followed by doubles final.

* Tickets: 1-866-WTA-CHAMP; online at www.wtachamps.com or at the Staples Center box office.

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