MADRID, Spain – Justine Henin-Hardenne will finish the year as the top-ranked player in women’s tennis after beating Maria Sharapova in Saturday’s semifinals of the WTA Championships.

Henin-Hardenne will face defending champion Amelie Mauresmo in Sunday’s final, with $1 million going to the winner. Mauresmo advanced to the final with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory over two-time winner Kim Clijsters.

Henin-Hardenne’s 6-2, 7-5 (5) victory over Sharapova clinched her second year-end No. 1 ranking. Mauresmo will finish 34 consecutive weeks as No. 1 at the end of the tournament.

Henin-Hardenne won the French Open and was the runner-up at the three other Grand Slam tournaments this year – the first woman since Martina Hingis in 1997 to reach all four major finals. She lost to Mauresmo at the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

Mauresmo also defeated Henin-Hardenne in a round-robin match Friday.

“It’s the last match of the year and obviously it’s great to have Justine and I in a final again, after we had a tough match yesterday,” Mauresmo said. “Hopefully she’ll party (tonight) with her No. 1 ranking.”

Henin-Hardenne can clinch a tour-high sixth title of 2006 in Madrid after missing nearly two months while recovering from a muscle tear in her right knee.

“It’s amazing. I’m very happy,” Henin-Hardenne said. “I’m very happy with the way I handled the pressure today. The season is not over yet. I’m No. 1 but I still want to win this tournament.

“I had a great season and I know there are a few players who deserve it too, but it’s not easy to go to the four finals of the Grand Slams, and I played very consistently all year. So I think I deserve (No. 1).”

Henin-Hardenne beat Sharapova for the third time in four meetings this year – the Belgian’s only loss coming in the U.S. Open final.

Henin-Hardenne, who had seven aces, had three service breaks in the first set while forcing Sharapova into 14 unforced errors. Henin-Hardenne converted her fourth break point in the eighth game of the second set to take a 5-3 lead when Sharapova hit a forehand into the net.

Sharapova rallied with her first break of the second set when Henin-Hardenne sent a forehand into the net. Both players then held serve to force the tiebreaker.

The Russian saved one match point at 6-4 in the tiebreaker, but Henin-Hardenne converted on her second try to give Sharapova only her second loss in 11 tiebreakers this year.

“I just didn’t feel like myself today,” Sharapova said. “I felt a little sluggish. I didn’t feel like I was concentrating.

“You hope to find a way to break through that, and I felt like I was getting there at the end of the match, but I just couldn’t put two or three good points together.”

Sharapova finished the season with a career-high five titles, including her second Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open.

“I’ve had an amazing year, a very successful year, and I’ll finish the highest I have in my career,” Sharapova said. “You always think about what went wrong and what could have gone better, but I’m happy with the way I played and just look forward to what I can improve for next year.”

AP-ES-11-11-06 1453EST



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