DOHA // A variety of high-profile players and officials have stepped up during the last year to defend the fact that Dinara Safina has held the world No 1 ranking for 26 weeks when Serena Williams is acknowledged as the sport's top performer.
It will come as a relief to those at the WTA who administer the much-derided ranking system that Serena, deposed of the top spot on the eve of the showcase Sony Ericsson Tour Championships, should regain the honour within a couple of days with far greater ease than had been envisaged. Serena herself has been the most outspoken critic of the system, demanding to know why a record of two grand slams this season and 11 in all is considered to be inferior to that of a rival who is yet to win one of the four major titles on the calendar.
She carried that argument right through to Doha and was clearly on a mission to go into the two-month winter break re-confirmed as the world's finest. Equally clearly she was surprised by the lack of resistance offered by what proved to be an injury-hit rival. The sad sight of Safina standing motionless on the baseline of Doha's Khalifa Stadium after hitting a shot back to her opponent Jelena Jankovic proved to be the defining moment of the saga that at times has forced the game's governing body to defend the indefensible.
Safina had pulled up in excruciating pain from a lower back injury and conceded her opening group match to Jankovic after sharing the opening two games. When the Russian confirmed she would be taking no further part in the elite tournament involving the world's top eight it meant her lead over Serena in the 52-week points table would turn into a deficit. Serena followed Safina on to the court not expecting Safina to withdraw from all three of her group matches, so the American renewed rivalry with elder sister Venus believing that she still had work to do to fulfil her rankings goal.
A 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) win for Serena which effectively eliminated Venus from a tournament she won last year meant a fifth rise to the top of the pile was endorsed in style. "I was just trying to do what I had to do," said Serena. "I just kept saying, 'I want to end this year No 1, so I better lift up the level of my game'." Serena believed Safina would recover in time to meet yesterday's scheduled appointment with the fourth-ranked Caroline Wozniacki. "I figured she was hurt and if I could just win a few matches, I could finish No 1. So I didn't know she pulled out totally," she said.
The American's euphoria contrasted with the misery of the Russian who expressed fears her injury may not clear up in time for her to compete in the Australian Open in January where she finished runner-up to Serena this year. A failure to defend the points she earned in Melbourne will inflict further damage to her prospects of one day returning to the top. Disclosing that she has been suffering from the problem for several weeks, she said she made the difficult decision to travel to Doha because there was so much at stake.
"Maybe I'll have to skip it. That would be really disappointing but at this stage of my career my health is more important," she added. "So unless I recover fully and I feel that I can have no fear and no pain then I will not step on the courts. What do you want me to do, play two games again and quit?" email@example.com