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Monday, April 20, 2009
Safina the beneficiary of a failed system

All right, I'll be the first to admit that I get all warm and fuzzy thinking about how nice it is that, for the first time ever, a brother and sister have each held the No. 1 ranking. But I don't think it means a whole lot, because it was accomplished with the equivalent of smoke and mirrors.

Marat Safin became No. 1 in November 2000, shortly after winning his first Grand Slam title in New York. His sister, Dinara, became No. 1 without having won a major, putting her in what is, ironically, a much more exclusive No. 1 club than the one to which Marat belongs. Dinara is one of just five players who became the official ATP or WTA No. 1 without having won a Grand Slam event before hitting that landmark ranking. The others are Marcelo Rios (ATP), Amelie Mauresmo, Kim Clijsters, and Jelena Jankovic.

That four of those players labor for the WTA is telling. For one thing, it suggests that the week-in, week-out (or is it "weak-in"?) consistency may be more sustainable and certainly pays greater potential rewards on the WTA Tour. Even if you can't get it together to take down the two or three women who may be better big-match players (but don't play as loaded a schedule), you can win enough matches to sneak in and grab the No. 1 ranking -- it's especially true if there's no dominant individual winning two or more majors in any given year.

Clijsters was a great example of how that process works: She was a consistent disappointment in late stages of majors (although she did win a Grand Slam event late in her truncated career), but she won enough second-level events and played enough events to slip into that No. 1 slot. And Safina is starting to look like this year's model. She looked awful against Serena in the Australian Open final (Williams allowed her all of three games in that blowout), so we're entitled to ask: How does she get to be No. 1?

The answer is easy: The ranking system is designed to encourage the pros to play more rather than less and to think accumulatively rather than selectively. The ranking system is really just a rating, which is arrived at by calculating how often you play and how much you win. You can argue that it's inaccurate (at best) or even unjust, and let's remember that there are solutions available.

The WTA could boost the number of points it awards for Grand Slam performance, or even make a player who hasn't won a major during any given ranking year ineligible for the top ranking -- that is, she (or he) should be ranked right behind one or more players who have won majors. It's counterintuitive, in this stat-and-number-driven era, but why not stipulate that a player has to have won a major to be ranked No. 1? Aren't Roger Federer, Venus Williams, Pete Sampras and others always going on about how it's the four Grand Slam events that really count?

Would it really seem like some great injustice if Safina were presently ranked No. 2, or even lower? I'll tell you what's not fair -- that the winner of the Australian Open and runner-up in Miami isn't ranked No. 1.