Clutching the 2009 Australian Open trophy close, Serena Williams stood just inches from the loneliest person in a crowd of thousands. Dinara Safina stared straight ahead, playing the stoic runner-up role to near perfection as everyone within the majestic confines of Melbourne Park got on their feet to applaud the newly crowned champion.
But for all the attempts the Russian made to put on a brave face, she couldn’t help but throw a wistful glance at the shiny mass of metal in the arms of her conqueror. Her gaze lingered perhaps long enough for her mind to run through the relentless pummelling she had just been handed down in a one-sided contest lasting a mere 59 minutes.
There were no ambiguities about the winner on that day, but less than three months later, a permutation and combination of numbers declared the mentally fragile Safina the No. 1 player in the world, an illusory crown she would possess for 25 weeks. Till that point, her major winnings consisted of four Women’s Tennis Association, or WTA, tour titles and appearances in two Slam finals (including the 2008 French Open), not as all-conquering as the top position would suggest. She would go on to reach one more Slam final (the 2009 French Open) before falling off the pro tennis map in 2011, the same year she recorded an unpleasant first in women’s tennis after being defeated 6-0, 6-0 by Kim Clijsters in the first round of the Australian Open.
Since the rankings system began in 1975, no former No. 1 woman had been double bageled before, and there you have it, the complete futility of the WTA rankings laid out in black and white. At a time when the No. 1 ranking in women’s tennis changes hands almost as often as service breaks, the tag doesn’t inspire much awe at all.
Unlike the days of Steffi Graf (who holds the record for most time spent at No. 1—377 weeks—as well as maximum singles Slams—22), Martina Navratilova (332 weeks) or Chris Evert (260 weeks), when it meant a considerable accomplishment, attaining the pinnacle appears to be a far easier task than snapping up the big trophies. Players like Safina, Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki spent most interviews defending their status in the game during their time in the hot seat, but on court they blew chillier than a cold front.
Jankovic, part of a Serbian success brigade in 2008 along with Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic, is far removed from centre stage in most Slams these days, slugging it out on the outside courts, but for those who care to remember, she ended the 2008 season ranked No. 1, a result of winning four tour titles and being a US Open finalist, where she lost to Williams. Her last trophy came in 2010, at Indian Wells.
At the 2012 US Open, she indicated that achieving dreams early in your career can be a double-edged sword, taking away motivation even while an important box is ticked in the to-do list. “When you have achieved your dream, something that you wanted your whole life, once you achieve that, there sometimes can be a lack of motivation and a lack of hunger,” she told The New York Times. Her current rank is No. 24.
Compatriot Ivanovic, meanwhile, is trying hard to get out of the one-Slam wonder classification, but even this former No. 1 (for 12 weeks) has fallen on hard times. The 2008 French Open (where, incidentally, she defeated Safina in the final) is her only major to date, and since then she hasn’t gone further than the quarter-finals of any Slam in the 18 that have gone by.
Comparing women’s tennis to the men’s game is far too simplistic, but if there’s any player these days whose aura precedes her on to the court like Messrs Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, it’s Williams. Winning her 15th singles Slam at Flushing Meadows, the American has had a summer to remember and, in the larger scheme of things, has been vital in restoring a sense of credibility to the WTA tour. The computerized ranking system still doesn’t proclaim her No. 1, and it hasn’t since 2010, but her champion quality is in no doubt. She has questioned the rankings herself a few times, making it clear she would rather win the big titles than stack up points.
“If you hold three Grand Slam titles maybe you should be No. 1, but not on the WTA tour obviously, so...,” was the cutting remark she made after winning her 11th Slam at Wimbledon in 2009. “It (not being No. 1) doesn’t disappoint me. If it did, I would go crazy just thinking about it. That’s just shocking, but whatever. I’d rather definitely be No. 2 and hold three Grand Slams in the past year than be No. 1 and not have any.”
Williams is sixth in the all-time list of women who have spent most time at the top, with 123 weeks in all. Marking out the absurdity is another name just three places below her—Wozniacki, who spent 67 weeks at the position over 2010 and 2011. She reached the final of the 2009 US Open, where she played a bit part in Clijsters’ feel-good comeback story, but that’s as far as the big tournaments go. That’s all she has to show for seven years on the pro tour.
The calculations involved in making her supposedly the best player in the world took into account her collection of titles on the WTA tour (18 in all), but in 2012 she has found it a struggle to maintain consistency with her defensive counterpunching style.
Deeply critical of the way the WTA defines their best players, 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Navratilova had a few things to say about the Dane’s “reign”. “Caroline doesn’t need to explain why she was No. 1, it’s the WTA that needs to explain that. If we still had the same ranking system we were using six years ago, when they were giving bonus points for beating (top) players, (Petra) Kvitova would have ended up No. 1 because she had beaten more top players than Wozniacki,” she told reporters at the 2012 Australian Open. “Wozniacki doesn’t even have that great a record in her career in the last four years over the top 10 or against the top 5. If you won 15 tournaments and not Slams, you’re No. 1 because you have the best record. So I don’t think the asterisk is not having won a Slam. The year before (2010), she was No. 1 because she had by far the best record, period. Never mind the Slams.”
Incidentally, even multiple Slam winners such as Clijsters and Frenchwoman Amélie Mauresmo got a taste of the ranking peak before they won their most coveted trophies. The Belgian was top in 2003, two years before she won the first of her four Slams in 2005. Mauresmo, with her easy-on-the-eye serve-and-volley brand of tennis, was the highest-ranked player in September 2004, also two years before she won the 2006 Australian Open and Wimbledon.
The current No. 1, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, is slowly building her case—she won the Australian Open this year by defeating Maria Sharapova, which was the start of her career as world No. 1. She also won three more WTA titles and reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon and the London Olympics singles, as well as the final of the US Open.
For all the invincibility her numerical standing is supposed to provide, there’s one player she hasn’t managed to get the better of this season, forced into being second-best each time the two have come face to face—at Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open. Williams, only the fourth-best player in the world according to the WTA list, has been arguing her case for sole superiority through the latter half of the season, running through her adversaries with clean forehands, mental gumption and ferocious serves.
For all the counterpunchers that populate the game today, any disagreements that declare differently will be taken as seriously as Safina’s command of the No. 1 position.
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