Serena, Safina battle for No. 1 in Doha

10/25/2009 - Tennis
Hard to believe, but Serena Williams has finished the year ranked No. 1 only once. China Photos/Getty Images

The WTA's year-end championships take place well ahead of the end of calendar year 2009 this season, beginning before Halloween in a scheduling shift designed to lengthen the offseason. It's not even the true end of play, since the Fed Cup final between the United States and Italy and the consolation-bracket Tournament of Champions in Bali, Indonesia, remain to be played next week.

It has long been argued that tennis tends to lose its steam after the U.S. Open, when the players retreat indoors. What's really at stake for the elite eight who will gather in Doha, Qatar, this week?

Serena Williams, 28, United States

What's at stake: It's simple. Williams needs to advance further than Dinara Safina, who re-inherits the top spot in the WTA rankings Monday, in order to finish as the year-end No. 1 for only the second time in her career. (Both were idle last week, but Safina will edge ahead by 155 points based on results from the last year.) That prospect could fuel a player who has obviously targeted Grand Slam events this year, winning in Australia and at Wimbledon, but has gone titleless in regular WTA tournaments in 2009. Williams, who is still awaiting word from the International Tennis Federation on possible additional sanctions for her outburst at the U.S. Open, has won the year-end championships once before, in 2001.

Dinara Safina, 23, Russia

What's at stake: See above. Yet you have to wonder if Safina might dread the prospect of finishing atop the rankings after a year of collapses in Slams and relentless questioning about her credentials. Nonetheless, she would be well-served to shut out the external critiques and try to play well in order to end the year on a high note. That wasn't the case in her WTA championships debut last year, as she lost three straight matches and was eliminated in round-robin play.

Svetlana Kuznetsova, 24, Russia

What's at stake: Kuznetsova had barely been heard from since she won the French Open and missed part of the summer season with a foot injury. But she cruised to the Beijing title last week, dropping only one set along the way, and is perhaps the only player who comes into Doha with a little momentum. Then again, this hasn't been a showcase event for the amiable grinder -- she's won just two matches in four appearances at the year-ender.

Venus Williams, 29, United States

What's at stake: Quick, name the defending champion in this event. Stumped? Yes, it's the older Williams sister. Venus won two early-season tournaments but was thwarted by her sibling at Wimbledon, lost the Stanford final to Marion Bartoli, and hasn't shown much singles spark since. Even so, Williams has been touting her enthusiasm for the year-ender in her Twitter posts, and she and Serena also have qualified in doubles.

Caroline Wozniacki, 19, Denmark

What's at stake: A newcomer to the year-end party, Wozniacki will be looking to further consolidate a breakthrough year that culminated with an appearance in the U.S. Open final. She has played more matches than anyone else in the top 10, but got a second wind in late summer with a win in New Haven and her run in New York. Since then, she's retired from two matches with injuries, and her energy level and health are the main question marks going into this event.

Elena Dementieva, 28, Russia

What's at stake: Dementieva has gone deep in a lot of tournaments this season, won three, and advanced to two Slam semis. She has a chance to finish in the top five for the second straight year. Does it really matter how she does here? Only if pride counts for anything. Dementieva has a dreadful record in the year-ender since the advent of round-robin play and had dropped 12 straight matches in the event before breaking through to advance to the elimination rounds last season. The 2008 Olympic gold medal may have been a personal zenith, but it would be a shame if it all went downhill from there.

Victoria Azarenka, 20, Belarus

What's at stake: It's been nearly all upside for Azarenka this year as she climbed into the top 10. Most of her losses have come to quality players in quality matches -- most recently, she succumbed to a vintage comeback effort by Maria Sharapova in Beijing. Azarenka has faded of late after a sensational first half and fatigue could be a factor in her first year-ender, but she's also an opportunist capable of taking advantage if her opponents come out flat.

Jelena Jankovic, 24, Serbia

What's at stake: The last slot in the championship draw came down to the last week. Jankovic backed in when players above and below her in the rankings fell down, and at this writing was holding her own in Moscow. The 2009 season, highlighted by a title in Cincinnati but punctuated by desultory results in Grand Slam event play, has been far more uneven for Jankovic than the previous two. It's hard to predict how focused she might be.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.