The WTA rankings system has been under fire in recent years. Critics scoffed that Dinara Safina and Caroline Wozniacki could reach the rankings summit without winning a Grand Slam title, and the catcalls grew even louder when the Dane stayed at the top of the world for an incredible 67 weeks, a period during which she failed to reach a major final.
That changed last January when Victoria Azarenka won the Australian Open and immediately became the new world number one. Finally, here was something casual tennis fans could understand: a Grand Slam champion as the sport’s highest ranked player.
But it wasn’t long before the critiques started again, fueled by the resurgent success of one Serena Williams. Having suffered a shock loss in the first round of the French Open, the American dominated for the rest of the year, winning the Wimbledon and US Open titles and the Olympic Gold Medal. After she capped these achievements with a commanding victory at the end-of-year WTA Championships in Istanbul, many were left scratching their heads as Azarenka continued to lead the rankings. Serena wins everything, so why isn’t she the number one?
Williams was favorite to take over as the queen bee at the Australian Open, but her surprise loss to Sloane Stephens in the quarter-finals in Melbourne, along with Azarenka’s successful title defense, meant that she could only climb to second.
However, this week’s Premier 5 event in Doha will see not two but three players battle it out for the top ranking. Along with Azarenka and Serena, Maria Sharapova has a chance to become the top dog in women’s tennis with a strong showing in the Qatari capital.
Here are the (rather complicated) scenarios for each of these players:
• The woman who looks least likely to end the week as the world number one is Victoria Azarenka. The Belarusian won Doha in 2012, collecting a hefty 900 points. So she needs to reach at least the final in 2013 to even have a chance of remaining at the top of the rankings.
• Serena Williams, who is only 355 points behind Azarenka in the current standings, could become the new world number one without hitting a ball in Doha, provided Azarenka loses before the final and Sharapova fails to win the title. But she can secure the top spot by reaching the last four, even if either Azarenka or Sharapova go on to lift the trophy.
• For Sharapova to become number one for the first time since last June, she needs to win the title and hope that Serena loses before the semi-finals.
The WTA Tour is a lot less predictable than men’s tennis at the moment, but the days of wild parity and outright unpredictability have gone. The “Big Three” of Azarenka, Serena and Sharapova have clearly been the world’s best players over the last twelve months, and as holders of the five most recent Grand Slam titles, a case could be made that each woman “deserves” the top ranking. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Serena will lose early in Doha, so picking the American to regain the top ranking for the first time since 2010 is the safest bet.
Written by Steven Webb for Live-Tennis.com