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Monday, October 29, 2012
Serena Williams the real No. 1 player


For the third year in a row, the WTA year-end No. 1 ranking deserves a giant asterisk.

In 2010 and 2011, Caroline Wozniacki, who has refined the concept of the "one-Slam wonder" into the "no-slam wonder," was the mathematical and statistical No. 1 according to the WTA's system. However -- because of her relatively poor performances in the most important events, the four Grand Slams -- she clearly was not the best player in the world.

This year, Victoria Azarenka finished No. 1, and, although she did win one of those major titles (the Australian Open), she can't even think of adding "best WTA player of 2012" to her résumé. That's because Serena Williams won two Grand Slam titles (pre-eminent Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) and the Olympic gold medal, dominating the heart of what we think of as the traditional tennis season. And she added the theoretical "fifth major," the WTA championship, to her title haul Sunday -- clobbering Maria Sharapova in the final, 6-4,6-3.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of that result is that, just days ago, Sharapova herself was a mere heartbeat from claiming the year-end No. 1 ranking. Serena? Not even close.

This win represents the seventh title of the year for Serena (second-best total of her career), and, in earning it, she boosted her winning streak against the top two players (Azarenka and Sharapova) to 11 matches. Yet Serena remains stuck at No. 3 in the world.

Does anyone else think No. 1 Azarenka and No. 2 Sharapova ought to give back some of their prize money, or at least donate a huge chunk of it to charity?

As Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena's coach, told Reuters after the Istanbul final: "It's surprising to win two Grand Slams, the Olympics, Madrid and the Championships and to be No. 3. If there is a bug somewhere, someone has to find it."

There is a bug somewhere.

Or look at it this way: In the span of a couple of days, Serena Williams bombed Azarenka off the court (in the round-robin portion of the championship). Then Sharapova blew away Azarenka. Then Serena crushed Sharapova. Serena lost no sets this past week, and surrendered just 15 games to the two women who, contrary to everything we instinctively know, are ranked above her.

You can't even cite mitigating circumstances, as you can in the case of Sharapova's big win over Azarenka in the semifinals of the championship. Azarenka clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking with her do-or-die round-robin win of the previous day against Li Na. Plus, she had banked four straight hard-court wins this year over Sharapova, enough to make her point. So you can see how Azarenka came out as flat emotionally as she was flat-footed physically.

Sharapova was nicely positioned after that win to make a statement in the final, but the only message she sent was, "I am not worthy." Serena delivered a stupendous reality check with her ninth straight win over Sharapova, in yet another blowout. The world No. 2 hasn't been able to take even a set off the present world No. 3 since 2008. That's just plain mortifying.

Well, you can't blame Azarenka or Sharapova for not being better than they are. Both of them work hard and do their best. But you can look to the WTA and ask some very hard questions about a ranking system that inordinately rewards mere participation and volume of play.

Neither Azarenka nor Sharapova is in Serena's league as a player. Both of them will finish the year ranked ahead of her. You could shrug and say that the stats are the stats and the system is what it is.

But when you look at the most significant stats -- the won-lost column and the roll of tournament wins -- it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the system is what it is, which is ridiculous.