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Friday, September 30, 2011
Updated: October 2, 12:44 PM ET
Who is the year-end No. 1 in the WTA?


It used to be a given that the prestigious and all-important year-end No. 1 ranking would rest in the hands of someone who had won at least one Grand Slam event in the previous 12 months. Often, having won at least one major was just the ante for being in the conversation -- even when the conversation became numerical, and processed and spewed out by a computer.

Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki
Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki still rank among the top.

But that has changed, and dramatically -- at least in the Women's Tennis Association. On the ATP side of the fence, the only player in recent memory who threatened to finish the year No. 1 without having bagged at least one major was Marcelo Rios. He came surprisingly close, and might have snatched the honor out of Pete Sampras's hands in 1998 were it not for a bad back that forced him to miss the ATP Tour season-ending championships (the injury also prematurely ended his promising career).

For most of the Open era, the WTA more or less marched in lock step with the ATP. But things changed dramatically in the fall of 2008, when Jelena Jankovic rose to No. 1 and kept the ranking until the first of February -- thereby becoming the first year-end No. 1 on either tour to earn the distinction without having won a major.

That would make Jankovic a heck of a trivia question but for this: Caroline Wozniacki became the second year-end No. 1 who had never won a major just last December. And we're on track to have a Slam-less year-end No. 1 for the third time in four years. Wozniacki may hold the position now, but in an interesting twist Victoria Azarenka also is in the running. That trivia question may have three valid answers.

It's all possible because Wozniacki has a lead of about 3,000 points in the rankings race, and she's defending just about that many points for the rest of the year. In 2010, she lost just one match in three tournaments after the U.S. Open. She won Tokyo and Beijing, and went all the way to the final of the WTA Tour championships, losing the last official WTA singles match of the year to Kim Clijsters.

But Wozniacki lost in the third round in Tokyo a few days ago, and one of her main rivals for the year-end No. 1 ranking, No. 2 Maria Sharapova (a multiple Grand Slam champion), stumbled out of Tokyo Thursday on a bad ankle. That more or less clears the way for Azarenka, a streaky player by any measure, to make a strong year-end run on hard courts that really suit her game.

Wozniacki can't gain ground, given how well she did last year. And Azarenka, who's on the march in Tokyo, can bank a pile of points because she had so-so results last fall (a semi in Tokyo and a win in Moscow, but a first-round loss in Beijing and a 1-2 record in the WTA Tour championships round-robin segment). If Wozniacki goes into a tailspin and Azarenka improves on her performances in Beijing and the Tour finale, who knows?

This would seem like an embarrassment to the WTA, given the pre-eminent role played by the Grand Slam events and the well-earned fame and reputations of the women who win them. But Azarenka could very well be a more worthy No. 1 than Wozniacki.

After all, Azarenka lost to the winner at two of this year's majors (Li Na at the French Open and Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon) and was beaten by the losing finalist at the other two (Li at the Australian Open and Serena Williams at the U.S. Open).

By contrast, Wozniacki lost to Li in Australia, Daniela Hantuchova at the French Open, Dominka Cibulkova at Wimbledon and Williams at the U.S. major. If we're going to have another Slam-less No. 1, let it be Azarenka and call the ranking what it has become: a consolation prize.