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Belgian belles in No. 1 battle

Los Angeles: Belgian rivals Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne will battle to the bitter end for the WTA Tour’s year-ending world No. 1 ranking as the season wraps up this week with the elite Tour Championships.

“I think it’s great to see that the last tournament of the year, it’s going to depend on that,” said Clijsters, whose victory in this event last year was the first step in her climb to the top of the rankings.

“If it would happen it would be great,” she said of ending the year as number one. “Especially at this tournament, it’s what started it all for me.”

While Clijsters has dominated the rankings, she hasn’t managed to match Henin-Hardenne’s two Grand Slam titles — at the French Open and US Open.

“If I can finish the year No. 1, it would be perfect,” Henin-Hardenne said. “I’d like to come back in 2004 as number one.”

Henin-Hardenne’s chances may have suffered a slight blow as she arrived in Los Angeles nursing a severe cold accompanied by a fever. She said on Tuesday, however, that she hoped a course of antibiotics would help, as would the fact that she won’t have to play her first match until Thursday.

Clijsters headlines the opening day’s programme, taking on Russian Elena Dementieva in the third of three matches. France’s Amelie Mauresmo opens the action against American Chanda Rubin while American Jennifer Capriati plays Japan’s Ai Sugiyama.

Under the new format adopted this year, eight players play a round-robin first round of three matches. “For the crowd I think it’s the best format, for the players, too,” Clijsters said.

“You see the best players play against everybody. I think it’ll be exciting,” said Capriati. “Because if you lose the first match it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of it. You can really get into it. Especially for people who are slow starters, or not used to the court, it’s good”, the American added.

While the joint rise of two players from the relatively small nation of Belgium means that Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne are linked in the minds of tennis fans, their relationship has often been uneasy, and it appears to remain so. Clijsters describes their relations as “friendly” but is reluctant to say much more.

“Everything has been blown out of proportion,” said Clijsters. “I don’t want to say anything. It will start again”.

Henin-Hardenne was perhaps a bit more frosty as she sat at a table on the floor of the vast Staples Center on Tuesday. “Have we ever been really, really close friends' That’s the question,” Henin-Hardenne said. “There is a lot of respect between each other”.

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