DOHA // With a prize of US$1.55m (Dh5.68m) on offer to the player who emerges unbeaten at this week's Sony Ericsson WTA Tour championships, the world's top female tennis players could be forgiven for wanting to keep this end-of-season meeting a closed shop.
But the top eight have said they will relish the challenge of staying in this select group next year, especially with Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin returning for the full season in 2010. The "Belgian Sisters" were serious rivals to the Williams sisters a few years ago. And the former world No 1s, are welcome returnees to the game. The brilliant Clijsters renaissance saw her take the prize scalps of both Serena and Venus Williams in New York last month on the way to repeating her 2005 US Open triumph. Henin, who captured seven grand slam titles before announcing her surprise retirement in the middle last year, is due to make her second coming during the build up for the Australian Open in January.
Serena, favourite to end the season with a win in Doha despite being seeded behind Dinara Safina, is relishing the tougher challenge that next year should present. "I think it's great, especially for Belgian tennis, to have Kim and Justine back in the game," she said. "They got tired at one point, but they're back. Good for them. Obviously I would like to wish them luck, but I want to do well, too."
These were gracious comments by Serena considering the disappointments she has suffered at the hands of the two Belgians. When the American was at the peak of her powers, she was restricted to a single French Open title because of Henin's supremacy on the clay of Roland Garros. Also, the American would probably have won the US Open for the fourth time but for Clijsters' unexpected re-emergence as a Flushing Meadows force this year.
Venus, who opened her defence of her Tour championship last night with the first of three round robin matches against Russia's Elena Dementieva, was also excited to see two of her biggest rivals return. "I totally welcome their return. If it makes them happy to play tennis, that's good for them and the game," she said. Dementieva, whose ambitions to end a lengthy career with an elusive grand slam title will be impaired by the re-establishment of the Belgian threat, said: "I think it's great to see Justine coming back. I think it's very interesting to see this greater level of competition. It gives all of us an extra motivation and makes it very interesting for the crowd.
"For me it's not a big surprise because I think with Kim and Justine, they were pretty young when they decided to retire. "I think Justine is someone who had a big passion for the game. I'm sure she was missing the game. So I don't know what was the reason for her to stop for that moment, but I'm sure she's desperate to come back and win a Wimbledon title." There have been a succession of unconvincing world No 1s since Henin retired as the undisputed leading lady of her sport.
One of them was Serbia's Jelena Jankovic, who said: "It's surprising, not because they are coming to play, but because when you say that you retire it means that you don't want to play any more. "Then after two years you come back again and you want to compete. But they are great for the sport. Both of them, they're unbelievable athletes. "I remember from playing a couple years ago against them. I was young, but I had some really exciting matches against both of them."