Focus on Safina, Serena

Top ranking on the line at season-ending event

The field at the season-ending WTA Championships in Doha (from left) Jelena Jankovic, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki, Serena Williams, Dinara Safina, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva and Venus Williams, at  Sunday’s draw ceremony. Reuters

Sunday's draw appeared to hand the advantage to 23-year-old Safina as she was placed in the easier of the two four-women groups that will be contested at the Khalifa Tennis Centre from Tuesday.

She will face late qualifier Jelena Jankovic of Serbia, the 2008 year-end number one, and tournament debutants Caroline Wozniacki, the US Open runner-up from Denmark, and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, in the White Group.

Serena, who claimed the number one spot from Safina at the China Open earlier this month, once again found herself a handful of points behind the Russian when the latest world rankings were published by the WTA on Monday.

The American is also in the much tougher Maroon Group where she must play sister Venus, the defending champion, and formidable Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova, the French Open winner, and Olympic gold medallist Elena Dementieva.

To have the battle for No 1 going to the wire is a dream scenario for women's tour chiefs and the Qatari tennis authorities who paid $42 million to stage the season-ending event for three years until it moves to Istanbul in 2011.

The WTA Tour finals have often struggled to capture the imagination of the public.
Last year in Doha, the early round robin matches were played in a muted atmosphere, although the fact that Serbia's Jankovic had already clinched the number one spot hardly boosted late ticket sales.

This time, however, everything will be on the line when the $4.5 million tournament gets under way on Tuesday.

Eleven times grand slam champion Serena arrives a whisker behind despite winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon, though it is her reputation as much as what she feels is her rightful place at the top of the rankings she is desperate to restore.

Serena made little attempt to disguise her annoyance that Safina, who has never won a grand slam title, led the rankings for 25 consecutive weeks this year and few would argue that her best is still too good for pretty much everybody.

Task cut out

To confirm her superiority, however, she will have to go further in Doha than Safina who holds a 155-point lead.

If both players go out at the same stage the number one ranking will probably be decided by who wins most round-robin matches which are each worth 160 ranking points.

Safina, who briefly lost the world number one ranking in Beijing only to grab it back just in time for Doha due to a quirk of the rankings system, has struggled to win over the critics who say she does not deserve top spot.

The Russian will be determined to do better than last year in Doha when she failed to win a match.

While Serena and Safina joust for the No 1 spot there is plenty of other interest in the tournament and not just in singles.

Venus and Serena hope to add the Tour Championships crown to the Olympic doubles gold they won in Beijing last year. Breakthrough years for Wozniacki and Azarenka have underlined the new depth in women's tennis and, with former world number ones Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters and Justin Henin, who will make her comeback in January, watching from afar, the health of the game looks rosy.

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