Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It would appear as though the chase for the coveted year-end No. 1 ranking is down to a three-horse race between Wimbledon and Aussie Open champion Amelie Mauresmo, U.S. Open titlist Kim Clijsters and French Open champ Justine Henin-Hardenne.
The 27-year-old Mauresmo is obviously playing the best tennis of her career right now, as evidenced by her prestigious major titles at Wimbledon and Melbourne, not to mention last year's lucrative win at the season-ending WTA Tour Championships in L.A.
The French star is a solid 37-8 this season, including four titles on the circuit. She'd never captured a Grand Slam event before this year, but has already accounted for two thirds of the major championships to this point in 2006. She bested an ailing Henin-Hardenne in January's Aussie Open finale and duplicated the feat, in come-from-behind fashion (2-6, 6-3, 6-4), by topping JH-H once again in the Wimbledon final just two weeks ago, making her the first-ever French titlist at Wimbledon in the Open Era. Mauresmo entered the year having not won a Grand Slam in 31 previous tries.
Oddly enough, Mauresmo went nearly five months without a title before prevailing at the All England Club.
With 3,692 rankings points, Mauresmo currently leads the former world No. 1 Clijsters (3,377) by 315 points and the former top-ranked Henin-Hardenne (3,093) by 599.
Mauresmo captured her first Wimbledon title two weeks ago and has won two of the three Grand Slams so far this year.
Mauresmo is 2-1 this year against Henin-Hardenne and a perfect 2-0 versus Clijsters. Her loss at the hands of JH-H came in a clay-court semifinal in Berlin. She erased an injured Clijsters in the Aussie Open semis and also dismissed the sturdy Belgian in a marquee final in Antwerp. Mauresmo also notched a victory against Kimmy at the WTA Championships in November.
By the way, the women's top five is rounded out by former No. 1 Maria Sharapova (2,400 pts.) and her fellow Russian Nadia Petrova (2,134). The emerging Petrova, like Mauresmo and Henin-Hardenne, owns a tour-best four titles this season.
It looks like Mauresmo has the upper hand on the field for now, but the athletic Frenchwoman and Henin-Hardenne could meet again, at the U.S. Open, where Clijsters is the reigning queen.
Mauresmo has never finished a year at No. 1, even though she's been a fixture inside the top 10 for the past several years, finishing there in what's going to be seven of the last eight campaigns. Her career-best finish was a No. 2 one in 2004.
The 24-year-old Henin-Hardenne has played in all three Grand Slam finals this year, with her lone victory coming over Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in the French Open title bout. It marked the Belgian's fifth major championship, including three of the last four titles at Roland Garros.
Henin-Hardenne is a brilliant 44-6 this year, including a quartet of championships. She may only be 1-2 against Mauresmo for the season, but she's a stellar 3-0 versus her sometimes Fed Cup teammate Clijsters, including semifinal victories at Wimbledon and the French Open. And if you're keeping score at home, Clijsters is a combined 0-5 versus Mauresmo and JH-H in '06.
The gritty Henin-Hardenne will finish inside the top 10 for a sixth straight year, including a year-end No. 1 spot back in 2003.
Henin-Hardenne has appeared in all three major finals this season.
The 23-year-old Clijsters headed into this season with a ton of momentum, having broken through for her first-ever Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open late last summer, and was considered by most to be the favorite at the Aussie Open, but since injuring her ankle in the Aussie Open semis against the high-flying Mauresmo, she appears to be battling some confidence issues, especially against her diminutive compatriot Henin-Hardenne.
Clijsters is still a respectable 28-8 for the season, but owns only one title, which came at a Tier II tourney in Warsaw more than two months ago.
The popular Clijsters will finish inside the top 10 for the fifth time in the last six years, but she's still seeking that elusive year-end top spot, having finished second to Henin-Hardenne in 2003 and Lindsay Davenport last year. An injured Davenport will not finish atop the rankings this year. The four-time year-end No. 1 American, who's been nursing a bad back, claimed the top spot the last two years and also finished ahead of the pack in 1998 and 2001.
By the way, Clijsters clinched last week's Fed Cup semifinal victory over the visiting United States (4-1), as she went 2-0 over the weekend to lead the Belgians into the final against Italy in September. Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne guided Belgium to its lone Fed Cup title back in 2001. Henin-Hardenne is not expected to represent her country in this year's finale.
So, with Mauresmo and Clijsters enjoying all their success over the past year, who is the best active player to never win a major on the women's tour? Well, I guess that would have to be current world No. 6 and two-time 2004 Grand Slam runner-up Elena Dementieva -- she of the fierce groundstrokes, but soft serve.
For the record, I suspect that Mauresmo will hold on to the top spot and cap a career year, but keep an eye on Clijsters, who should excel in the now-underway hardcourt season.