Tennis

WTA Tour should revisit rankings

Caroline Wozniacki (L) of Denmark is presented flowers
Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki is no household name, but she's the new No. 1. Really.
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Matt Cronin

Matt Cronin is a senior editor at Inside Tennis magazine and the co-owner of the award-winning TennisReporters.net.

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Caroline Wozniacki achieved the No. 1 ranking in women's singles for the first time last week by reaching the quarterfinals of Beijing, and capped it with a title run in which she bested her U.S. Open conqueror, Vera Zvonareva, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in the final.

But the rise to the top spot for the 20-year-old Dane fits into a sorry trend of the WTA Tour these days, in which women who have not won a major somehow manage to take over the No. 1 spot.

Perhaps it's time to redefine what a deserving No. 1 is, because over the past three years, three women — Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Wozniacki — have grabbed the top spot without  having played a super-impressive match in a Grand Slam final.

It is to their credit that they earned enough points to rise to No. 1. But each ascent to the top spot is confusing to casual tennis fans, many of whom might never have seen Wozniacki play, as she failed to reach a major final this season.

No. 1's are supposed to be dominant players, and as consistent as she's been this year, Wozniacki is not even close to being considered a lockdown player at big tournaments. In fact, she didn't even win her first WTA Premier 5 tournament (an A-minus level event) until August in Montreal, and didn't grab her first Premier mandatory tournament until Beijing (an A-level event, with Grand Slams considered A-pluses).

Sadly, the primary reason Wozniacki has been able to grab No. 1 is injuries to the tour's best player at the majors, Serena Williams, who would more than likely still be sitting in the top spot if she had managed to play one tournament since she took her fourth Wimbledon title in the summer. But a foot injury (and possibly lack of motivation to compete in the fall) kept Serena out of action since early July, and now it appears she's out for the rest of the year.

So with Serena dropping ranking points left and right, Wozniacki more or less backed into the top spot, despite having beaten only four top-10 players and another who was ranked in the top five this year.

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That is not entirely her fault, as she never had the chance to face either Williams sister and never got the opportunity for a 2009 U.S. Open rematch against Kim Clijsters (Wozniacki fell to Clijsters there in the only major final she's reached). But she did confront multiple Slam title champs Justine Henin, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova. She suffered a tough three-set loss to Henin in Miami, scored a straight-sets win over Kuznetsova in Montreal, and took a classic two-set victory over Sharapova in the fourth round of the U.S. Open.

But her 2010 Slam losses cannot be discounted. The tour never has seen a player rise to No. 1 only having reached one semifinal in her past four majors, and Wozniacki did just that. At the Aussie Open, she went down to Na Li in fourth round; at the French Open, she was overwhelmed by eventual champ Francesca's Schiavone's variety of spins in the quarters; at Wimbledon, powerful Czech lefty Petra Kvitova crushed her 6-2, 6-0; and at the U.S. Open, where Wozniacki came in red hot, having lost only one match since Wimbledon, she played passively in a straight-sets loss while Zvonareva went on the offensive.

That's doesn't mean Wozniacki won't win a major while she's No. 1, as she has to be considered one of the top five favorites to win the 2011 Aussie Open. But what it does mean is that like Jankovic and Safina, she isn't ready for prime time yet, and might even be further away than those two were when they ascended to the top of the sport.

When Jankovic reached No. 1 in August 2008, she had reached two Slam semis that year and  promptly reached the U.S. Open final. Safina stood at No. 1 for 25 weeks in between April 11 and October 20,  2009, and rose to the top spot not only based on outstanding play in WTA Premier events, but also because she reached three major finals (Aussie Open and two French Opens, although she had admittedly horrible showings in all three).

While the past three years have been way too topsy turvy in regards to the rankings, it's not like Wozniacki/Jankovic/Safina are trendsetters. Kim Clijsters rose to No. 1 in the summer of 2003 without a Slam title under her belt and became the first Slamless No. 1 since the tour began ranking players in 1975. Then a primarily defensive player and workhorse like Wozniacki, Clijsters needed another two years to win her first major at the U.S. Open. France's Amelie Mauresmo did much the same, grabbing No. 1 in the fall of 2004 for five weeks time, and it took her until 2006 to win her only two majors, at the Aussie Open and Wimbledon.

Not coincidently, this plethora of Slam-less No. 1s coincides with the Williams era, in which Serena and Venus have combined for 20 Slams, but rarely play enough to keep their rankings high.

If anyone is to be blamed for the rankings mess, it's the veteran elite players themselves.

When Henin decided to temporarily retire in May 2008, she immediately told the tour that she wanted to be taken out of the rankings. Sharapova then briefly took over the top spot (she already had held it on three occasions), but wasn't going to do much on clay at the French Open anyway. Then Ana Ivanovic seized the tournament and top ranking for 12 weeks before she began to slide precipitously, unable to handle the pressure of being the so-called queen of the tour.

Since Ivanovic won the French, Serena has been the only player who backed up the top spot with outstanding results at the majors, winning five more Slams including two Aussie Opens, two Wimbledons and one US Open.

Unfortunately, there is no real way for the WTA Tour to seriously fiddle with the ranking system unless it wants to go back to its prior, much-criticized system, which awarded bonus points for beating high-ranked players (but also slightly discounted tournament performances). According to the tennis news service “Daily Tennis,” if that ranking system were in place today, the top five would look like this: 1. Serena, 2. Venus, 3. Clijsters, 4. Wozniacki, 5. Zvonareva.

But if the tour were to significantly lessen the number of required events, you could all but count on the tour's elite veterans to be virtual ghosts outside of the majors.

As it stands now, all five of the tour's top drawing cards (Serena and Venus Williams, Sharapova, Clijsters and Henin) play reduced schedules. Given that all of them say they are much more concerned about winning majors than they are about the top spot, imagine what the fields would be like for longstanding successful U.S. tournament like Charleston and Stanford — totally lacking in star power. In fact, even the WTA's most important tournament, the WTA Championships, which begins in two weeks, already is feeling the effects: The Williams sisters won't play due to injuries, Sharapova didn't qualify, Clijsters might not show up even though she has qualified, and Henin, who is about to return from an elbow injury, is a long shot to qualify.

The WTA simply cannot hope to grow if it begins cutting tournament requirements, and given that only 16 tournaments are used in rankings anyway, it would be foolhardy not to offer a ranking incentive to play a reasonable amount.

Really, it's now up to Wozniacki to better the performances of Safina and Jankovic at the majors after their rises to No. 1, and do even better than Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo, who took a long time to develop the necessary mental toughness to be able to win a Slam.

Wozniacki showed up just fine outside of the majors, and with her win over Zvonareva in Beijing she scored her tour-leading 59th victory. She also has won more titles than anyone in 2010, with six (Ponte Vedra Beach, Copenhagen, Montreal, New Haven, Tokyo, Beijing).

By no means does Wozniacki look like a better player than Serena, Clijsters or Henin. But they all are aging and won't be around forever. In fact, all of them, including Venus, could retire within two years, and given how much success Wozniacki has had against members of her own generation, she seems like a near lock to win a major some day.

But what the Dane wants to do and almost must do in the short term is win a major while the legends still are around. Clearly, Wozniacki needs to improve her forehand, serve and volley, but she's arguably the best mover on tour now, has a world-class backhand and, for the most part, competes like hell.

If she wins the upcoming WTA Championships and Aussie Open, she'll be able to push the mute button on the discussion of her legitimacy as No. 1. But it's up to her to do it. If not, she'll continue to be held up as an example of why the ranking system is dysfunctional, and nobody wants to be that player. Just ask the slumping Jankovic and Safina.

“Being No. 1 has always been a dream for me," Wozniacki said. "This is a really big step for me. [But winning my first major] would be like a dream come true.”

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