Women's No. 1 ranking devalued

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World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka has already lost the spot once this year, and her hold on the ranking appears tenuous.

No. 1, anyone? Sometimes it seems that no one wants the top ranking in women's tennis these days, and looking at the record, it's hard to blame them. The most recent players to make their debut at No. 1 include Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Caroline Wozniacki.

It's a list that reads less like a Who's Who than a Where Are They Now -- their struggles upon reaching the top spot have been well-documented, and none so far has been able to regain the form that got her there.

Ivanovic, who got to No. 1 by winning the 2008 French Open, was struck by injuries and stage fright soon after and is currently No. 12. Jankovic, Safina and Wozniacki all had to deal with intense scrutiny after reaching No. 1 without having won a Grand Slam, and all burned out by playing too much to defend their ranking.

Even the current No. 1, Victoria Azarenka, is barely clinging to her position despite beginning the year with a 26-match winning streak. She lost the top spot to Maria Sharapova at the French Open but regained it at Wimbledon. Azarenka's closest challenger is Agnieszka Radwanska, who had chances to take over at Wimbledon, Montreal and Cincinnati but fell short. Radwanska could get there at the upcoming U.S. Open, but if she does so without winning the tournament, there will be more acrimony over yet another slamless No. 1.

And if Serena Williams continues to tear up the field the way she has the past few weeks, it won't matter who else is No. 1, it's bound to ring a little hollow -- especially while Williams remains stuck at No. 4.

The slow devaluation of No. 1

This kind of turnover at the top is unprecedented since rankings for the women were introduced in 1975. When Azarenka became No. 1 in January, she was the 11th different player to reach the top spot in the past 10 years, one more than in all the previous years combined.

And while the quantity has increased, the quality seems to have decreased -- at least in terms of the results required to reach the top. Six of those 11 most recent players to be ranked No. 1 -- Kim Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo, Maria Sharapova, Jankovic, Safina and Wozniacki -- were not holding a Grand Slam title when they first got there, and none except Sharapova had ever won a Slam at that point in her career.

Clijsters and Mauresmo eventually won multiple Slams, with Sharapova also adding to her total. But the other three have yet to break through at the four biggest tournaments, which, especially in the eyes of the public, represent the truest measure of a player's performance. Jankovic is No. 34 and looks increasingly unlikely to do win a Slam. Safina is on an indefinite leave from the tour with a back injury. Wozniacki is only 22 and may yet have her chances, but at No. 8 and falling, she has a lot of lost ground to make up first.

What has all this done to the value of No. 1 on the women's tour? To all the players who grew up dreaming about someday reaching the summit, the ranking retains its mystique.

"It was an incredible feeling," Wozniacki said in an interview with espnW. "I knew that I had to win against Petra Kvitova to reach that No. 1. And when I won, that feeling that just went through me is just indescribable -- you know, relief, but excitement, just everything at once.

"Because when you're growing up, what your dreams are is to be one of the best tennis players in the world and be No. 1, and that's what you're always trained for, so that is definitely special moment. You never know if that ever is going to happen to you or you know if you ever get close, but when that moment actually reaches you, it's just incredible. It's one of your dreams coming true."

First, there's the "sip of champagne and a little bit of cake" -- that's how Wozniacki celebrated. But then comes the hard part: staying No. 1. Many players have said getting there is easier than having to defend the position week after week. It's almost like having a new identity. "In the beginning you're like, oh, is that it?" Wozniacki said. "You know, it doesn't really sink in straightaway. When you see you're No. 1 seed every time, you are No. 1 seed in the tournaments and people are calling you No. 1, that's when it starts.

"But then afterward you're like, wow, that's actually incredible, to say you wake up in the morning and you're like, there's no kind of player better than you in the whole wide world, so that's quite pretty cool."

The problem, however, is that being No. 1 is no longer synonymous with being the best in the world. Once, it was a pinnacle that a player reached after winning multiple Slams and being a dominant force. Gabriela Sabatini, Conchita Martinez and Mary Pierce all won majors but never reached No. 1. That was something reserved for the best of the best.

Not recently, when a No. 1 debut has indicated that a player has burgeoning potential at best, and, at worst, that she is simply a placeholder until the real deals return. It's a strong contrast with the men's attitude, where Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have hungrily pursued the top spot over the past few years as part of their fierce rivalry.

Maybe that's why those real deals, who have been there and done that, no longer appear to see reaching No. 1 as a goal. "It doesn't matter whether I'm 1 or 4. I still feel like I'm a force to be reckoned with," Serena Williams said last week in Cincinnati.

"It would be nice if it would happen," Clijsters said last year of being No. 1 again. "...But it's not that I'm adjusting my schedule or adding more tournaments to my season this year."

When Sharapova was preparing to play the Australian Open final earlier this season, it didn't matter to her that the No. 1 ranking was also up for grabs. "Having been in the position before, [it] doesn't really to me," she said. "I think personally, for me, it's more about the Grand Slam win."

Breakdown at the top

How did we get to this point? Rather like the top of the women's game, it is a complex puzzle. Being No. 1 requires a lot of playing. Being a legitimate No. 1 requires a lot of winning. The game's recent heavyweights, such as the Williams sisters, Henin, Clijsters and Sharapova, have captured the bulk of the Grand Slams but have also had regular absences -- or sudden retirements -- because of injuries, other priorities and the desire to peak for big events. That means they have only intermittently played the full schedule required to collect enough ranking points to reach No. 1.

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Caroline Wozniacki is one of several players who have struggled under the pressure of playing as No. 1 without having won a major.

The resulting vacuum at the top thrust those coming up behind them into the breach, and once there, they were expected to live up to the standards set by their predecessors. The pressure took its toll -- instead of growing into their lofty positions, they stumbled and tumbled, only to be replaced by yet more unprepared pretenders to the throne.

Changes to the ranking system exacerbated this trend. Until the late 1990s, players were ranked based on their average points per tournament. Since then, the rankings have been based on players' best results in a certain number of tournaments, allowing them to play more tournaments without extra risk. In the mid-2000s, bonus points for beating top players were also removed, further increasing the emphasis on quantity over quality.

But the top names tended to play less as time went on, not more, skewing the rankings in favor of the more consistent workhorses. To cap it all, Henin retired at No. 1 in 2008, creating a rankings havoc that saw five different players reach No. 1 in the next five months.

Another factor is the increased depth of the women's field, making it harder for any No. 1 to dominate. Six different players have won the past six Grand Slam tournaments.

"You become a target for everyone," Wozniacki said. "Everyone else wants to go out there and they know they have to play their best against you. I think a lot of people feel the pressure as well and have a tough time handling it.

"But again, the field is so strong at the moment; there's so many girls playing well. It's not like in the older days -- if you played someone ranked 70 in the world, you knew you were going to win easy. And now it's just getting more difficult."

Prospects for order

But that's not enough for the public. Fans expect No. 1s to be great, rather than just very good. If order is to be restored, it may unexpectedly lie in the hands of a player who got to No. 1 just over 10 years ago -- Serena Williams. At 30, she is playing some of the best tennis of her career, and for the first time in a very long time is showing up and winning smaller tournaments as well as majors. If she keeps it up, the No. 1 ranking will follow.

Her return to the top of the women's game -- if not yet to the top of the rankings -- highlights how the next generation is still struggling to match the combination of power and speed that the Williams sisters pioneered.

"It's a hard one because I feel like strength comes into it a lot," said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who has worked with several WTA players as a coaching consultant with adidas. "In the women's game, if you have that extra strength, it can aid you so much. It's not only so much for one match but also for longevity of a career, as well. An athlete like Serena, she moves great, she's extremely strong on the court. But it also protects quite often from injury, from fatigue, and also gives her that advantage when she steps onto the court -- she knows she can overpower most of her opponents."

"I think when Venus and Serena came in they really put up the barrier really high, and you really had to be very strong physically," Wozniacki said. "And a lot of more girls started to go to the gym every day and not only go and play tennis."

Even Serena has had to work to get back to top form, making changes to the way she trains, plays and prepares for tournaments. And just having her around to set the standard again may give the field the motivation to improve -- not to mention the space to do so, out of the glare of No. 1.

"There are going to be players that look at Serena and go, I want to play like her," Cahill said. "That's what's going to make it so interesting in the next five to 10 years in the women's game, because I feel like we're going to get a bunch of female tennis players, good athletes, coming into the game of tennis that are going to play Serena Williams-type tennis."

The No. 1 ranking may not be what it used to be, but then again, the women's game is in a different place, as well.

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