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Friday, February 15, 2013
And the race for No. 1 is on

Victoria Azarenka
Victoria Azarenka hasn't had to face either Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova in 2013.

While most of the world has been obsessing about Rafael Nadal's left knee, the WTA has put together a pretty attention-worthy little story of its own -- the battle for the No. 1 ranking, which is up for grabs this week in Doha, Qatar.

Three women embarked on the week with a shot at emerging with the top ranking, and not one of them has seen fit, or been forced, to bow out of the race. It's down to just three more matches now. Reigning No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, No. 2 Serena Williams and No. 3 Maria Sharapova, are all in the quarterfinals.

In fact, by the time you read this, Williams might have locked up the No. 1 ranking and therefore become the oldest No. 1 in WTA history. Chris Evert was 30 in 1985 when she lost the No. 1 ranking for good; Serena is already well into 31. This would be an amazing accomplishment for Serena, given that even ageless wonder Martina Navratilova was unable to lead the parade at Serena's age.

Let's handicap the terrific three who are in the hunt in the desert:

Azarenka is in the driver's seat, as she's been since the penultimate day in January of last year. She's had some trouble keeping the car between the white lines, and she's also been lucky. I say lucky because she hasn't played either of her main rivals this year, and there were moments during the Australian Open when it looked like even a lengthy medical timeout of the kind she took against surprise semifinalist Sloane Stephens wouldn't have helped her -- had it been Serena or even a dialed-in Maria across the net.

Serena Williams
Serena Williams controls her own destiny in Qatar.

Azarenka has missed two dates with Williams this year, only one through her own fault. That was in Brisbane, where an infected big toe caused Azarenka to pull out of their semifinal. At the subsequent Australian Open, Serena lost to Stephens in the quarterfinals. Azarenka overcame significant obstacles (although there's no obstacle more significant than Serena) to win the title and retain her top ranking. Sharapova, meanwhile, had pulled out of warm-up events with injury, and she was upset by Li Na in the semis in Melbourne.

Vika is two matches away from retaining her top ranking, but her fate is not entirely in her own hands. She will be a heavy favorite in her quarterfinal with Sara Errani, but also against either of her potential semifinal opponents -- Agnieszka Radwanska or former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. But there's one significant problem for Azarenka, and it's a familiar one: Serena.

If Serena handles former Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova to reach the semis, this entire complicated mess would clear up. She would become No. 1 on Monday no matter what anyone else does. Her destiny is not just in her own hands, it's a hot potato. Juggle it for 90 minutes, beat Kvitova and presto -- you've made tennis history.

Maria Sharapova
It's a long shot, but Maria Sharapova could emerge with the top ranking.

The only problem with Serena's scenario is that she probably has the toughest, or at any rate the least predictable, quarterfinal. Kvitova, while erratic and still seemingly shell-shocked by her triumph in 2011 at Wimbledon, has fallen to No. 8 and is off to a terrible start this year. (She hasn't won two consecutive matches at a tournament.) But keep in mind that going into the Australian Open last year, Kvitova was a few swings of the racket from the No. 1 ranking. She's got a big game, loves the hard courts, and is just too explosive a player not to be a clear and ever-present danger -- especially if the pressure gets to Serena or Kvitova finds she likes the role of spoiler.

Sharapova is the long shot for No. 1; she can only get there if three things happen, two of which seem unlikely: Serena must lose to Kvitova, Azarenka must falter before the final and Sharapova must take the title. What's the over/under on something like that happening? And what if Serena loses to Kvitova, Azarenka bombs out in either of the next two rounds, and Radwanska beats Sharapova in the final -- as she did in Miami last April?

Come to think of it, the way the WTA has been going these days, it almost seems like a viable scenario. Just think, the WTA can then have a Big Four of its own, with Radwanska playing the role filled in the ATP version by Andy Murray.