No. 1 up for grabs at year-end championships

After 10 hard-fought months, the 2006 season concludes this week with the top eight players competing at the Sony Ericsson Championships in Madrid. It's been a roller-coaster season for several of the competitors, most of whom have been plagued by injuries. For others like Martina Hingis, reaching the championships has been a significant achievement. One noticeable absence is the United States, which failed to qualify a singles player for the first time since 1972 (the first year a season-ending singles championship was held).

Three players remain in the running for the year-end No. 1 ranking: defending champion Amelie Mauresmo, Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin-Hardenne. It's the first time three players have entered the year-end championships with a chance to finish the year No. 1.

The field is separated into two groups named red and yellow in honor of the host nation, Spain. The two groupings will play a round-robin format with the top two players from each group advancing to the semifinals.

Here's a closer look at the field and how they fared in 2006 (listed in order of their seeding).

1. Amélie Mauresmo, France

The Frenchwoman known as the best player to have never won a Grand Slam broke though in 2006 by winning the first two Grand Slam titles of her career. Mauresmo won the Australian Open when Justine Henin-Hardenne retired in the second set, and beat the Belgian in three sets at Wimbledon. However, many say her breakthrough happened at this event last year when she beat Mary Pierce in the final.

Since her title at the All England Club, Mauresmo has struggled: Five tournaments, no titles and reached only one final (losing to Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4, 6-0 in Beijing). Mauresmo recently has been bothered by an inflamed shoulder and pulled out of the Zurich Open last month. She admits serving could be an issue in Madrid, but anticipates her legs will be much fresher than most of the other players in the field.

Althoughs she is currently ranked No. 1 in the world, a lot has to happen for Mauresmo to finish the year in the top spot. Not only must she win the tournament, but Henin-Hardenne has to finish last in the Yellow Group and Maria Sharapova cannot reach the semifinals.

2. Maria Sharapova, Russia

The Russian is the hottest player on tour right now. She's won 16 straight matches, which includes titles at the U.S. Open, Zurich and Linz. (The longest win streak of 2006 is held by Henin-Hardenne, who won 17 in row.)

Sharapova has reached at least the semifinals in 12 of 14 tournaments this year and has five titles -- tied with Henin-Hardenne and Nadia Petrova for the most in 2006. Sharapova can finish the year No. 1 if she wins the title and Henin-Hardenne fails to reach the final.

3. Justine Henin-Hardenne, Belgium

Having reached the final of all four Grand Slams this season, Henin-Hardenne currently leads the Sony Ericsson Championships points race, although it's been three years since the Belgian was healthy enough to compete in the year-end tournament. Even when she's played in this tournament, Henin-Hardenne has never fared particularly well (4-4 in three appearances).

Of the three players who can finish the season ranked No. 1, Henin-Hardenne has the best odds because she did not play last year and therefore has no points to defend. Regardless of her result, Henin-Hardenne will finish the year No. 1 as long as Sharapova fails to reach the final.

The down side is that, because of a lingering knee injury, Henin-Hardenne has not played in nearly two months. In fact, she's played only two matches since losing to Sharapova in the final of the U.S. Open. She's played in only 12 tournaments this season, but won five of them and finished runner-up in four others.

4. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Russia

After winning the U.S. Open in 2004 and finishing No. 5 in the world, Kuznetsova's play tailed off considerably. In 2005, she won one title and her year-end ranking dropped 13 spots. But 2006 has been seen a resurgence with three titles, including the Nasdaq-100, considered by some to be the fifth major.

Kuznetsova enters the championships with confidence, having defeated Mauresmo in the aforementioned Beijing final. Kuznetsova and compatriot Petrova have the least amount of experience of all the players in the field. Kuznetsova qualified in 2004 and lost two of three matches.

5. Nadia Petrova, Russia

No player's season has been more up and down than Petrova's. She went 17-1 in a five-tournament stretch, which included wins in Doha, Amelia Island, Charleston and Berlin. That run came to a sudden end with a first-round loss at the French Open, the start of a five-match losing streak for the Russian. How long did her winless drought last? After winning the Berlin Open on May 14, her next match win did not come until the first round of the U.S. Open.

Despite her EKG-like season, Petrova has won five titles, tied with Henin-Hardenne and Sharapova for the most in '06. She enters the season-ending championships full of confidence having reached the finals of three straight tournaments. (She won Stuggart, but lost in the final at Moscow and Linz.) She competed in the championships for the first time last season, but did not advance past round-robin play.

6. Kim Clijsters, Belgium

Injuries have consumed Clijsters' season. Until her comeback win Sunday at the Gaz de France Stars, the Belgian had not seen action since the middle of August because of a wrist injury that prevented her from defending her U.S. Open title.

Before taking time off, Clijsters had won two tournaments and even regained her No. 1 ranking -- for the first time since 2003 -- for a brief period right after the Australian Open. In the three Grand Slams she did compete in, the Belgian reached the semifinals in each.

Clijsters won the season-ending championships in 2002 and 2003. Her run in 2002 was especially impressive, dropping just 14 games en route to the title. That equaled Martina Navratilova's 1983 record for fewest games lost in the year's last event.

7. Elena Dementieva, Russia

Dementieva is the only player in this year's field who can say she's competed in the year-end championships every year since 2000. However, her record is a dismal 3-11, and is currently riding a seven-match losing streak at this event dating back to 2003.

In her debut six years ago, Dementieva made a stellar run to the semifinals, knocking off Lindsay Davenport and Clijsters in the process. Since then she has failed to advance past the round-robin. One of four Russians in the field, Dementieva has won two titles this season, her latest at Los Angeles in August. However, since her quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open, she's won consecutive matches just once in four tournaments.

8. Martina Hingis, Switzerland

The last time Hingis qualified for the season-ending championships was six years ago. Her remarkable comeback this season has been well documented, and her place among the final eight in Madrid must come as a surprise even for her.

The Swiss Miss won two tournaments this season and reached the quarterfinals or better in 13 of 19 events, starting with the Australian Open in January. Ranked No. 349 in the world, Hingis reached the final eight in Australia before falling to Clijsters in a tough three-set match. Her ranking immediately rose to No. 117, and by mid-August Hingis had returned to the top 10 for the first time since 2003.

Including her two titles this season, Hingis now has 42 for her career, which is 10th best in the Open era. Hingis' record at the Tour Championships is a stellar 15-3 with titles in 1998 and 2000.