Six in the mix: Race for women's No. 1 is wide open
By Douglas Robson, Special for USA TODAY
NEW YORK — If it seems like the No. 1 ranking in women's tennis is a game of musical chairs in which no one stays seated at the end, take solace. The top slot is that up for grabs.
For the first time since the computer rankings were introduced in 1975, six women could emerge from the U.S. Open with the No. 1 position — a record number of contenders heading into a major, according to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.
Three players control their destiny: No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, No. 2 Jelena Jankovic and No. 3 Serena Williams. A win and they would leave New York peering down on the rest of the field.
PHOTO GALLERY: Images from the U.S. Open
No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 6 Dinara Safina and No. 7 Elena Dementieva need to win or reach the final and get help from others to claim the top spot. (No. 5 Maria Sharapova is injured and not in the mix).
Dementieva, the Olympic singles gold medalist, says it's obvious why the scramble to the top so tight. "Because Justine is not here anymore," the Russian says of former No. 1 Justine Henin.
Henin's abrupt retirement before the French Open and her decision to remove her name from the rankings is certainly a big factor, because the Belgian had a sizable points lead.
"Justine was so far ahead of everybody else that we wouldn't be talking about this if she was still playing," Fed Cup captain and TV commentator Mary Joe Fernandez says.
But it's more complicated than that.
Injuries have affected everyone from Ivanovic (thumb) to Serena and Venus Williams (knees) to Jankovic (knee). The rolling 52-week ranking system, in which points drop off from the same week the year before, coupled with a reconfigured calendar because of the Beijing Olympics created some unusual results.
Serbia's Jankovic, for instance, blew several chances to ascend to No. 1 then found herself atop the rankings Aug. 11 a week after losing in the quarterfinals at Montreal. On Aug. 18, compatriot Ivanovic reclaimed the top ranking without even playing a match and is now the U.S. Open's top seed.
"It's kind of weird that they're switching week to week with no tournaments," says former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, who defeated Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada 6-4, 6-2 Monday to reach the second round.
2007 U.S. Open runner-up Kuznetsova points out that becoming a dominant No. 1 takes more than avoiding injuries or benefiting from quirks in the calendar.
"Even people who don't have injuries have mental ups and downs," says the 2004 U.S. Open winner from Russia, whose career high ranking is No. 2. "That's normal. The life we live is hard, it's lonely, traveling all the time — a lot of things affect you."
The upshot is that this year the top ranking already has been passed around five times among four players (Henin, Sharapova, Ivanovic and Jankovic). That is the most since the 2005 season, when two players swapped it five times.
The all-time high since the advent of computer rankings in 1975 was eight changes among four players in 2002 and eight swaps among three players in 1995. That record could be in jeopardy.
"The following months are going to be changing a lot like this," said Kuznetsova, who advanced to the second round by defeating Shuai Zhang of China 6-4, 6-2.
By comparison, Roger Federer's extraordinary 237-week reign at No. 1 that ended Aug. 18 coincided with 14 changes among the women.
For surging players such as Safina, the confluence of events presents a golden, and perhaps unforeseen, opportunity.
"I don't think she thought in a million years that all of a sudden she'd be in that position," Fernandez says of the French Open and Olympic finalist, who hit a career high of No. 6 two weeks ago.
For the half dozen in the hunt, the U.S. Open is now a more critical springboard to finishing the year atop the rankings.
"Whoever wins here will probably go on and play well in the fall and most likely end the year at No. 1," Fernandez says.
Whether all the back-and-forth is good also is a topic of debate.
Davenport, who is back at the Open as a 32-year-old mother, said it was "unfortunate" and perhaps "confusing" to fans unaware of the computer's workings.
"I think for the fans, they don't really know … who's No. 1 this week or is it a big deal now or not?" the three-time major winner from California says.
Kuznetsova, 23, disagrees.
"It's wide-open, and I think it's interesting," she said. "Now it's unpredictable, and it's a good chance for everybody."
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