The scramble is on for WTA Championships

Updated: September 26, 2005, 5:38 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

Last dance, last chance, for love-40 and any other tennis scores at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the WTA Championships will end a four-year run in November.

The six-day tournament, which features the top eight tour players vying for a $1 million winner's purse, finally began to hit its stride at the Staples Center last year, drawing more than 53,000 after two years of less-than-avid fan interest. Next year the event will move to a smaller, 10,000-seat arena in Madrid and is likely to rotate among different markets in the future.

Which ensemble cast will make the curtain call in L.A.? Five of the eight slots are probably spoken for. The other five with realistic hopes have six more weekends to elbow their way onto the main stage, and they have some strategic scheduling decisions to make about where to play, what to skip and how to stay match-fit while avoiding flameout.

Big-payoff dates to circle include the Kremlin Cup (Oct. 10), whose location is obvious; the Zurich Open (Oct. 17); and the Advanta Championships in Philadelphia (Oct. 31). The players don't qualify on the strength of world rankings but by a separate points tally that's computed differently and includes this season's results only.

At the championships, which begin Nov. 8, the eight qualifiers play round-robin matches in two groups of four and the top two players from each group advance to the semis.

Here's the way things are shaping up at the moment.

Two players, Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport, have clinched spots in Los Angeles. Clijsters, ranked third in the world, is the tour points leader. The Belgian U.S. Open winner wants to overtake Russia's Maria Sharapova for world No. 1 by year's end, which is part of the reason she's playing in Luxembourg this week while most of the other top players take a break.

Davenport -- No. 2 on both lists -- is resting a sore back. She also has piled up enough points to assure herself a trip to her native Southern California. Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium (fourth in points) and France's Mary Pierce (fifth) are fairly certain bets to qualify.

Sharapova, currently third in the WTA rankings and defending champion of the year-ender, created a stir off the court as well last year with provocative billboard ads. Her road to L.A. this year was blocked last week by a strained pectoral muscle that forced her out midway through a semifinal match in the China Open, where she was trailing eventual tournament champion (and first-time WTA title winner) Maria Kirilenko of Russia.

If Sharapova is able to come back to play in the tour event in Filderstadt, Germany, next week, she could lock up a berth with a good performance.

The scramble up the anthill for the last three spots will likely involve Nos. 6 through 10 in the points race: France's Amelie Mauresmo, Venus Williams of the U.S., Switzerland's Patty Schnyder and Russia's Nadia Petrova and Elena Dementieva.

Venus Williams withdrew before the China Open quarterfinals with a bad knee. Sister Serena, who lost to Sharapova in the WTA Championship finals last year, was bounced in the first round in China and is a long shot at best now.

Clay feat: It took 4½ hours and 35 aces, but Andy Roddick was able to outlast Belgium's Olivier Rochus in Davis Cup singles Sunday to secure a place for the U.S. team in next year's 16-team final tournament. Rochus, who is 9 inches shorter than the powerful Roddick, bedeviled him with tenacious shot-making on the indoor clay at Leuven. The first three sets all went to tiebreaks; Roddick won two, but capitulated fairly easily in the fourth before recovering -- with the help of a disputed line call -- in the fifth. The ruling incited the crowd, and the jeers prompted the U.S. team to leave the court without celebrating. Roddick's win, along with his previous defeat of Rochus' brother Christophe and Bob and Mike Bryan's doubles victory, saved the U.S. from being demoted into lower-tier play. Now can we please call off the tiresome search for Roddick's mojo?

Slo/Cro: The Slovak Republic and Croatia -- both first-timers in the Davis Cup finals -- will play for the championship in December after ousting favored Argentina and Russia respectively. The ever-entertaining 34-year-old former Wimbledon champ Goran Ivanisevic announced he will come out of retirement and play fellow countryman Sasa Tuksar to try to claw his way onto the squad.

Freelance writer Bonnie DeSimone covers tennis for ESPN.com.