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Thursday, October 29, 2009
Where does Safina go from here?

For those still interested in who would finish the year as women's No. 1, well, you got your answer earlier than expected in Doha.

Yes, Serena Williams, she of the two majors in 2009, edged Dinara Safina, she of the doughnut in Slams -- but a winner in Rome and Madrid. (Insert Williams' stand-up job following the Wimbledon final here.) Sure Williams wanted the top ranking -- she'd rather be No. 1 than No. 2, after all -- but landing the big ones is what really matters. The top spot has been in flux since the departure of Justine Henin, so Williams reclaiming the year-end No. 1 isn't comparable to, let's say, Roger regaining his crown from Rafa, fending off the viable threat of Andy Murray in the process.

Safina is spared the suffering of having to answer countless questions about finishing No. 1 despite her drought at majors, similar to Jelena Jankovic last year.

The longer the tennis authorities deliberate about any further punishment Williams should receive in the wake of her U.S. Open tirade, the better her chances of no extra sanctions. Writing a letter to the poor lineswoman didn't hurt.

Thus, she'll probably show up at the Australian Open in January and battle Kim Clijsters, Henin and Maria Sharapova for the title.

Where does Safina go from here? Ironically, the Russian has a greater chance of skipping Melbourne than Serena, thanks to a back injury she claims sprung up after Wimbledon and ultimately forced her out of the year-end championships.

Safina's year, though, started to go downhill at the French Open. She got a huge break by meeting the mentally suspect Svetlana Kuznetsova in the final. By this time, Safina's worried looks to her coach, Zeljko Krajan, were in full flow.

Now, the ailing back certainly explains Safina's serving woes during the U.S. Open. Yet a few weeks earlier, she failed to put away Jankovic in the Cincinnati finale, even though the Serb battled for three hours the previous day. We all know what happened in New York -- it was painful to watch -- and with the back feeling a tad better in Tokyo and Beijing, the agony continued against a pair of unheralded foes. Not including Wednesday's retirement versus Jankovic, Safina went a sober 3-5 (winning in straight sets once) to close out 2009 -- a sad end to what should be regarded as, but won't be, a positive year.

If Safina is 70 or 80 percent -- she can't play for six weeks -- skipping Melbourne isn't a bad idea. There's no point competing and exiting the first week. Safina can give the back injury a little more weight, helping to, rightly or wrongly, explain away her display from the summer onwards.

We're guessing most fans want the 23-year-old to bounce back. She's funny, witty, honest and less trigger-happy in verbal responses than big brother Marat. (He makes for great one-liners, mind you.)

What we don't want is another Elena Dementieva, who promised much in 2004 but hasn't cut it at Slams since.

• Anyone notice how peeved Venus Williams appeared in her loss to little sis Wednesday? Venus rarely shows frustration, but with Serena serving at 4-3, 0-15 in the third set, Venus seemed to slap her racket upon missing a forehand return wide. At 30-15, after a backhand return miss, she took it out on her racket again. Later, there was an exasperated look to the sky.

Not like her.

A reminder that Venus is nearing 30 and hasn't won a non-grass major since 2001.

• The women's tour went for the cash, rather than atmosphere, when giving the year-end championships to Doha, and the result has been less than full crowds so far. Here's how Serena put it after topping pal Kuznetsova in Tuesday's sparsely attended late match:

"You can tell how much we care about our sport and how passionate we are," she said. "We didn't care who was there, whether it was one person or two."

• A few years ago, coaching icon Nick Bollettieri spoke of the need for Nicole Vaidisova (then a big-time prospect) to curb her temper. Wonder what Bollettieri makes of the fiery Victoria Azarenka?

Azarenka lost her cool against Caroline Wozniacki on Wednesday, earning a warning for smacking a ball into the crowd, then a point penalty for smashing her racket. Wozniacki prevailed.

Azarenka won't end up like Vaidisova, by the way.

• Azarenka and Wozniacki went to 14 deuces in the fifth game of the second set Wednesday. Elena Dementieva delivered 15 double faults against Venus Williams on Wednesday. Commendably, she only hit two in the third set after uncorking 10 in the second.

• Quote of the week: She has that bad back, but Dinara Safina isn't blaming the calendar. "I wouldn't complain about the schedule, because if I would lose everywhere in the first round, I wouldn't have this problem," she quipped.