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Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Playing the percentages


When the season-ending WTA Championships begin next week, the chief question will be: Can anyone beat Justine Henin? The little Belgian that could has put a crimp in the seasons of nearly all the players she'll be facing in Madrid. Here's how they might expect to fare against her:

8. Maria Sharapova: She squeaked into the field when Venus Williams withdrew and says she's going to play -- dodgy shoulder or no dodgy shoulder. But even last year, fully healthy and coming off a title run at the U.S. Open, she fell to Henin in Madrid. This year, she'll go in lacking the confidence to go for the first strike consistently and the defense to stay with Henin during rallies. A win isn't impossible, but it's very unlikely.

Chance of defeating Henin: 18 percent
Record vs. Henin: 2-5

7. Daniela Hantuchova: She has been heavily touted since 2002, but has won only three titles in that time. Two of those came this year -- and last week's triumph in Linz was the first outside her favorite stomping grounds in Indian Wells. Hantuchova had decent success against Henin during her 2002 surge, but Henin now hits the heaviest (even if not the most powerful) ball in women's tennis. Tough for Hantuchova to counter.

Chance of defeating Henin: 8 percent
Record vs. Henin: 2-3

6. Serena Williams: Henin vs. Serena has been the most intriguing rivalry on the WTA Tour this year, kicking off with Serena coming back from a set and a break down at 0-6, 4-5 to win in Miami, but going on to lose three straight Grand Slam quarterfinals to Henin. After coming from nowhere to win the Australian, Serena's results have slowly faded and injuries have flared up again. But we've all learned never to count her out, and indoors in Madrid, she's still capable of punching past the Belgian. She won't be the favorite though, and any psychological edge she had over Henin shrank considerably when Henin managed a convincing win over her at the U.S. Open. Only some great serving and a very good day will do it.

Chance of defeating Henin: 30 percent
Record vs. Henin: 6-6

5. Anna Chakvetadze: Fulfilled a long-time ambition by hitting the top five this year, but she's still mentally suspect and has trouble asserting her eclectic game against Henin, who's always quick to pounce on a weak spot.

Chance of defeating Henin: 12 percent
Record vs. Henin: 0-2

4. Ana Ivanovic: After a breakthrough period when she won Berlin, reached the French Open final, the Wimbledon semifinal and won Los Angeles, Ivanovic has been up and down. Stage fright against Henin on the final Saturday in Paris and perhaps against Venus Williams at the U.S. Open may affect her in the next few big matches. Beating Henin in Madrid would require going all out on the forehand and having them drop in, which means feeling no pressure. The odds of that are fairly long.

Chance of defeating Henin: 27 percent
Record vs. Henin: 0-2

3. Svetlana Kuznetsova: Capable of beating anyone on a great day, but her record against Henin shows how rarely she has great days against the very best. She's had a solid but rather unspectacular season so far, so there's no reason to expect anything different in Madrid.

Chance of defeating Henin: 20 percent
Record vs. Henin: 2-15

2. Jelena Jankovic: Henin vs. Jankovic is the best one-sided rivalry in tennis these days. Jankovic has yet to beat Henin in eight tries, but took Henin to three sets in each of their first five meetings. But as she's slowly played herself to exhaustion this year, she's lost in two straight (albeit entertaining) sets during their last three matches. In Madrid, the key will be Jankovic's state of body -- and mind. Will a couple of weeks off put enough back in her tank to beat her nemesis? Probably not, but hopefully it'll be enough to make it fun to watch her try. If she can keep it close, the law of averages might just fall in her favor. But if she's still spent, it won't be much of a contest.

Chance of defeating Henin: 27 percent
Record vs. Henin: 0-8

1. Justine Henin: The player with the best chance of bringing Henin down is Henin herself. As she showed at the U.S. Open, Henin can look unstoppable these days when she's at the top of her game. But she can have sudden physical letdowns, and facing a top-10 field in Madrid is a demanding task.

But not half as demanding as it is for the players who have to face her.