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Mauresmo, Henin-Hardenne Into Final

MADRID, Spain - Two players who dominated the Grand Slam circuit this year will fittingly square off for the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships title, after Amélie Mauresmo and Justine Henin-Hardenne held off valiant challenges in Saturday's semifinals. With her intense win over Maria Sharapova, Henin-Hardenne also secured the year-end No.1 ranking.

Henin-Hardenne and Sharapova were the first pair to do battle Saturday afternoon, and the conclusion of the 62 76(5) victory was nothing short of high drama. Henin-Hardenne blazed through the opening set in just 34 minutes and raced out to a 5-3 lead in the second set. In those situations, Sharapova has been known to bring out her best, and this time was no different. She broke back and held for 5-all then rallied her way into a tie-break. There just wasn't enough gas left in the tank once there, however; she quickly fell behind 4-1, and although she managed to close in somewhat to 6-4, it was all over two points later.

"I felt a little sluggish," said Sharapova, the only player this week to win all three of her round robin matches, and all in straight sets, no less. "And I tried. I mean from 5-3, I tried to find a way. I did feel like I was getting better towards the end of the match, but I still don't feel like my concentration was quite there. Like I could put two, three points together. And against someone like Justine, that's not good."

"I was a little bit nervous at the end to conclude the match but I'm very happy the way I played," said Henin-Hardenne, who was coming off a loss in her last round robin match, on Friday against Mauresmo. "The key for me yesterday was that I came out of the court and I said, there were many positives, just take these and build something for tomorrow. I just turned the page very quickly. I knew what I had to improve if I wanted to win today.

"I'm a competitor. When I play for nothing, like yesterday, it's probably harder for me."

Henin-Hardenne had already qualified for the semifinal round when she faced Mauresmo, and so for her the match didn't have much impact; but she certainly upped her level Saturday. And by reaching the final, the Belgian also guaranteed herself of a return to the world's No.1 ranking when the year-end list is released Monday, her first time at the top in over two years, since the 2004 US Open fortnight.

"It's going to be me and I'm very happy about that," Henin-Hardenne continued. "It's not easy to get to the finals of all four Grand Slams, and that's what I did. I've been very consistent, and I'm now in the final again. 2006 is almost done, and when I look back, I see only good things, even when I think about my tough matches in the Grand Slam finals.  It's probably the best season of my career and I will enjoy it in the next two months."

"She's been in the finals of all the Grand Slams this year," added Sharapova on the No.1 talk. "She's been very consistent. The wins take care of the rankings - they don't lie."

Sharapova heads home with her season-best 19-match win streak snapped, but her head held high when thinking back to what was arguably her best season to date, winning her second Grand Slam title at the US Open as well as claiming a flurry of other hardcourt titles.

"I've had an amazing year. I don't know what I'll be, two or three in the world, but it's probably the highest I've finished in my career. When you lose it's always disappointing, but at the end of the day I have a month and a half off. I'm happy with the way I've been playing lately, and I hope I can improve and take that into next year.

"The only disappointment I have is from the match, not because I didn't become No.1."

Henin-Hardenne becomes the first player since Steffi Graf in 1993 to reach the finals at all four majors as well as the season-ending Championships. The German finished runner-up to Monica Seles at the Australian Open that year, then swept all the other titles.

Mauresmo rallies past Clijsters, eyes title defense

Having struggled with form and injury throughout the fall indoor season, Amélie Mauresmo has again taken it up a notch in the last week of the year; the Frenchwoman gave herself the chance at a repeat with a hard-fought 62 36 63 win over former two-time champion Kim Clijsters in the day's second semifinal.

"The atmosphere at the end was just incredible," Mauresmo said after the match. "The way people got involved in the match was so nice. And for both of us to be able to play some very high level of tennis, it really feels great."

"In these matches it's only a few points that make the difference," Clijsters later said. "At the end it could have gone either way, especially at 3-all, where she held and I had break points. But I thought the way she came out was incredible. I don't think I've ever played against her where she played as well as she did in the first set. There's nothing you can do, just try to keep hanging in there."

Clijsters, who missed over two months after injuring her wrist in Montréal, returning to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour in the final two weeks of the year (winning Hasselt, reaching the semifinals here), heads into the off-season with mixed feelings about 2006.

"I'm very happy with the way that it ended. I had a really good week here, and last week as well. I'll take the positive things with me to Australia. It's always nice to end the year when you're playing well I guess. But it's been very frustrating. And there've been days and weeks where I thought I wanted to stop already, but especially after the injury in Montréal. I didn't know how much I had left of trying to get myself back."

Sunday's final promises to be a classic. The finalists were tied 5-5 lifetime coming into this event, then had that aforementioned battle in the round robin, with the Frenchwoman prevailing, 46 76(3) 62. But they are tied, 2-2, in finals.

"We're not going to change what we do and what our weapons are," Mauresmo added. "We'll adjust a few things here and there that could make a difference at the end of the day.

Raymond/Stosur, Black/Stubbs reach Sony Ericsson Championships doubles final

It'll be a rematch of last year's thriller as top-seeded defending champions Lisa Raymond and Samantha Stosur face No.3-seeded pair Cara Black and Rennae Stubbs for the doubles title. On Saturday, Raymond and Stosur eased past No.4 seeds Kveta Peschke and Francesca Schiavone, 61 64, while Black and Stubbs upset No.2 seeds Yan Zi and Zheng Jie, 75 26 75. Black and Stubbs had by far the tougher contest, squeaking out breaks in the penultimate games of the first and third sets en route to the marathon victory.

Raymond and Stosur have won 14 titles together and nine this year, including their second Grand Slam triumph at Roland Garros. Black and Stubbs have won 11 together, including two this season. The two pairs faced off in last season's final, with the American-Australian duo prevailing over the Zimbabwean-Australian duo, 67(5) 75 64, but not without a fight - they overcame a 5-2 deficit in the second set en route to the incredible comeback win.

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