A Look Back: 2006 Championships
MADRID, Spain - Eight women arrived in Madrid in a fight for season-ending honor. Justine Henin-Hardenne was arguably the least-prepared, having missed the entire fall Sony Ericsson WTA Tour season with a right knee injury; but she stayed true to her reputation as one of the grittiest competitors in the history of the game and rose above the all-star field, clinching her return to No.1 with a semifinal triumph over Maria Sharapova on Saturday, then capturing her first Sony Ericsson Championships title with a resonant 64 63 victory over Amélie Mauresmo on Sunday.
Henin-Hardenne was by and large the aggressor against Mauresmo, crushing her big groundstrokes and serves into the corners and, in particular, dominating play on her opponent's serve. She won over half the points on the Frenchwoman's delivery and had break points in eight of those 10 games, eventually converting on six. A double fault on match point handed the Belgian her first season-ending title.
"I was close to winning our match two days ago, but it wasn't good enough at the end of the second set," said Henin-Hardenne, who lost 46 76(3) 62 to Mauresmo in the round robin. "So from the first point to the end today I decided to put more pressure. I played amazing at the end. I had a lot of motivation and that's what I missed in my last match against Amélie on Friday. So that was the difference."
"No excuses; she just played better than me today," Mauresmo said. "She took the opportunities when she had them, and I felt I didn't serve so well and wasn't so effective on the forehand side, when I was going to the net. But that's just the way it is. And, as I said throughout the week, I didn't expect to be here today, and maybe with the energy I gave every match, today I didn't have enough."
Henin-Hardenne was 2-1 in the round robin portion of the event, beginning with a 62 67(5) 61 win over Martina Hingis (a match that went to three sets despite her having led 5-2 in the second) and a 64 64 victory over Nadia Petrova, before the aforementioned loss to Mauresmo. In the semifinals she continued to blossom into top form, holding off a late charge from Sharapova to reach the final, 62 76(5).
The win over Sharapova secured for her a return to the No.1 ranking, a place she held for 45 non-consecutive weeks between 2003 and 2004. This will be her second time finishing the year No.1, after 2003.
"I've been very consistent, very solid," said Henin-Hardenne of her year. "I can only be happy. I can look back and say in my Wimbledon and US Open finals, I was not at my best but I'm not going to think too much about that. I'm just going to keep everything that went well, and say it's been the best season of my career.
"I can't say I was 100 percent this week but it was amazing what happened for me in the last few days."
Despite the dismay of surrendering her season-ending title and the No.1 ranking, Mauresmo still has a lot to be proud of when looking back at her breakout season.
"It's tough, because the disappointment is here right after the match. But later on, I'm sure I'll look back on my season thinking I would have signed for it any time if somebody would have told me, before January, that I was going to get two Grand Slam titles and be in the final here again. That's why you play tennis, to have these big matches, even if sometimes you lose; but it makes you stronger.
"What I look forward to now is resting a bit and getting ready for '07 - because once you've tasted these emotions, these big moments, you want to have more."
Others who left lasting impressions in Madrid were Sharapova, the only woman who was 3-0 in round robin play going into the semis; Kim Clijsters, who went 2-1 in the round robin before dropping a three set semifinal to Mauresmo; Nadia Petrova, who notched a win over Mauresmo in the round robin; and Martina Hingis, who pushed both eventual finalists to three sets in round robin play and narrowly missed a semifinal berth.
Sharapova was part of the three-woman race for year-end No.1, alongside Mauresmo and Henin-Hardenne, but needed to win the title and have the Belgian fall before the final. The Russian finishes up with her highest year-ending ranking of No.2, and also extended her win streak to 19 before seeing it snapped in the semis.
"I've had an amazing year. 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."
Clijsters was in her second week back from injury, having hurt her wrist during her opening round in Montréal. She was forced to miss her US Open title defense.
"I've had a really good week here. I'll take the positives with me to Australia. It's always nice to end the year when you're playing well I guess. But it's been frustrating. There've been times where I wanted to stop but especially after the injury in Montréal. I didn't know how much I had left of trying to get back."
But the week really belonged to Henin-Hardenne, who silenced all nay-sayers with her return from injury and profound victories over several of her closest rivals.
"I didn't know if I'd be healthy to play the whole tournament, play five matches at this level in six days; it was a challenge, and I didn't know what to expect, and then I come, I win. I finish the year number one. So what more can I ask for? I'm just so happy right now. It's an unbelievable feeling.
"I don't want to think about next year. I want to enjoy the moment. Life goes by too fast, and if I start thinking about what's going to happen next year I think I'll miss very important emotions right now."