x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Russians rally to defend Safina's status

A tennis re-enactment of the Cold War broke out in the neutral territory of Qatar yesterday as Russia set up an army of resistance to open hostility from the United States' leading campaigner Serena Williams.

Following criticism from Serena Williams, Russia's world No 1 Dinara Safina, above, has received backing from her compatriots Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva at the end-of-season WTA Tour event in Doha.
Following criticism from Serena Williams, Russia's world No 1 Dinara Safina, above, has received backing from her compatriots Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva at the end-of-season WTA Tour event in Doha.

DOHA // A tennis re-enactment of the Cold War broke out in the neutral territory of Qatar yesterday as Russia set up an army of resistance to open hostility from the United States' leading campaigner Serena Williams. Serena has been firing verbal volleys in the direction of her arch enemy Dinara Safina for much of this year due to the Russian holding the coveted No 1 ranking for 26 weeks without endorsing that elite status with a grand slam title.

Safina, who has won three titles and reached eight finals on the WTA Tour in what has been her best campaign in a decade on the world circuit, was understandably prickly when pressed on the rankings issue and received swift support from her compatriots Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva in defending the situation. Asked for a response to those who have criticised the way her sport's ranking system can rate her above the younger Williams sister, who has won two of this year's four grand slams and 11 in all, Safina remarked: "So call them to make a ranking system how they want to make it."

Safina switched from a scowl which her soon-to-retire elder brother Marat Safin would have been proud of to a smile before claiming: "I don't care any more. They can say whatever they want. I am where I am, and that's it." Following Safina into yesterday's open session with the world's top eight women in advance of the annual end-of-season Tour finals in Doha which begin this evening were Kuznetsova, who has won two grand slams but never reached the top rankings, and Dementieva, who has an Olympic gold medal to compensate for her disappointments in two major finals.

Kuznetsova, who thrashed a hapless Safina in a tremendously disappointing French Open final in June, said: "I think Dinara deserves to be where she is because she has played so many good events. She's there because she played in the finals at the Australian Open and Roland Garros. I'm not going to be the one to say you have to be No 1 winning a slam. "But I don't want to judge anybody. I'm doing my own career. I won two grand slams. I'm happy with that. Definitely I'm going to try to become No 1 one day."

Dementieva, who held match points against Serena in a semi- final at Wimbledon - a match which is generally considered to be the best of the year - said: "She's [Safina] not the first one who's in the No 1 position without winning a grand slam. But she's won a lot of big events this season and been in a few other finals. "She has worked very hard all these years to get to the No 1 position and we have to respect this. Also, I think she's very close to winning a grand slam title."

Serena, who with older sister Venus made up the rear of the eight-woman chat show, was on her guard about throwing more fuel on to the fire, not least because she remains under investigation for her shameful outburst at the US Open where she was heard threatening and abusing a line judge moments before her semi-final exit at the hands of Kim Clijsters. Serena, officially demoted again yesterday to world No 2 after spending a fourth and brief spell at the top of the list, preferred to take the positive approach and set her stall out to survive longer than Safina this week and regain the top spot.

"It would be awesome, to be No 1 for the end of the year," she said. "It would be really cool. But I have to win my matches first. I'm in a tough part of the draw. So, we'll see what happens." By "tough part of the draw", Serena was referring to the irritation of being in the same round-robin group of four with her sister. The Californian siblings' opening matches tonight are, curiously, against their Russian dissidents. Venus takes on Dementieva and Serena faces Kuznetsova.

In the other group, Safina is joined by Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki - who has made a spectacular rise this year to fourth in the rankings - the steadily improving Belarusian Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Jankovic, a former world No 1 from Serbia. Azarenka and Jankovic meet in the curtain raiser of the six-day event this evening. Safina and Wozniacki begin their campaigns tomorrow. @Email:wjohnson@thenational.ae