Justine Henin's retirement not only left a vacuum atop the WTA Leaderboard, but also in the hearts of fans who had been enjoying an extended period of time where the player who held the #1 ranking was also universally accepted as the world's best player.
But times have changed. And nothing sparks a heated debate among WTA fans faster than the question of "Who is the real #1". Sure, Ana Ivanovic is the current holder of that distinction, and no one argues that she hasn't earned it based on points. But there are many fans who simply will not accept that she is the best player in 2008.
So how do you determine, qualitatively, the true world number 1? To me, you have to take into consideration a players' actual results as well as the quality of their results, the latter being something that WTA rankings points don't capture, which is a shame.
The three players in the center of this "who's number 1" discussion are Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, and Ana Ivanovic. Jelena Jankovic has yet to make it past the semi of a Slam, and I'm sorry Venus, but the one Wimbledon title does not make up for your horrendous season otherwise.
So, Masha, ReRe, and AI. They all have legitimate arguments. Here's my breakdown.
- Quantitatively: Australian Open Champion, Doha (Tier 1), Amelia Island (Tier 2), one round of Fed Cup (winner), lost early at Roland Garros (to Safina) and Wimbledon (to Kudryavtseva)
- Qualitatively: Sharapova was hands down tops during the first quarter of the season. Destroyed the competition at the Australian Open, tearing through Davenport, Henin, Jankovic, and Ivanovic. Had a 17 match win streak going until her loss to Kuznetsova at Indian Wells. But since that loss, she's lost her form. She lost to Serena at Charleston where she was thoroughly dominated. She's ostensibly struggled with injuries, withdrawing from Miami, Berlin, Eastborne, and pulling out of Rome. And of course, she struggled at Roland Garros, eventually losing the fourth round to Safina after having two match points. And her devastating second round loss to a fellow Russian ranked outside of the top 100, her earliest Grand Slam exit in six years.
- Quantitatively: No Grand Slams, Wimbledon Finalist, Miami Champion (Tier 1), Charleston Champion (Tier 1), Bangalore Champion (Tier 2), lost to Jankovic in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and lost early to Srebotnik at Roland Garros, no Fed Cup play.
- Qualitatively: Her Miami run was nothing short of magical. She almost double-bageled Justine Henin, for Christ's sake (62 60), and went through Kuznetsova and JJ for the title (though her performance in the final was a little shaky). She beat her sister for the Bangalore title, and destroyed Sharapova at Charleston in a kind reminder that Maria is still "a cow on ice". But the loss to Jankovic in Melbourne and to Srebotnik at Roland Garros were particularly disturbing because she wasn't outplayed; she just didn't bother showing up. I know people are split on this, but I thought Wimbledon was Serena's to win, but she choked. That being said, I give Serena the nod for the second quarter of the year.
- Quantitatively: French Open Champion, Australian Open Finalist, Indian Wells Champion (Tier 1), Berlin semi-finalist (Tier 1), lost early to Davenport in Miami, lost first round of Rome (to Pironkova), lost third round at Wimbledon to Zheng, two rounds of Fed Cup (won all),
- Qualitatively: Her most marquee win of the season has been over Venus in straight sets at the Australian Open. Has shown guts throughout the season in her wins over Hantuchova at AO and JJ at the French Open. But she's shown that she can be beaten when she plays against players who hit the ball hard and flat (Davenport, Dementieva, and Zheng). And despite her gutsy performances, she has also shown a propensity to melt down mentally (Pironkova, Sharapova). But no doubt, of the three, Ivanovic has been the most consistent over the first half of the season.
But does it all mean? Between Maria or Serena and I give the solid nod (oh so reluctantly) to Serena. Sure, there's an argument to be made that you can't be #1 if you haven't won a Slam. But again, we're not talking about a rankings-based #1. We're talking about who is the most feared player on the tour with the results to back it up. Serena has been more consistent over the first two quarters (at least she made the QFs of the Australian Open), while Maria's drop from form between the first quarter and the second quarter have been much more dramatic and disappointing (from Grand Slam champion to earliest exit from a Slam in 6 years?). So dramatic that I actually put her behind Ana.
As opposed to Maria and Serena's Championship runs, Ana has never had to go through one of the "Big 3" (Henin, Maria, or Serena) to get a title. She hasn't played Serena this year but she lost to Henin in Sydney (though she did finally take a set off her), and she of course lost to Maria in Melbourne (that stupid drop shot!!!). That being said, She was in a Grand Final twice this year, winning one and losing the other, which is more than either Maria or Serena can say. While she did crash out early to Zheng at Wimbledon, Zheng had the run of her life at Wimbledon and in retrospect it wasn't as harsh a loss as we thought it was.
So that leaves me in a tough spot. Give #1 to a player we all know could be more dominant but hasn't won a Grand Slam this year? A player who was absolutely and unquestionably dominant for the first quarter of the year and won a Grand Slam? Or a player who has also won a Grand Slam, been more consistent through the season, and is the current #1?
I just don't think you can give #1 to someone who hasn't won a Slam. Slams are what count, they are what the top players are working for, and if you can't perform at a Slam that says a lot. To me, performances at smaller tournaments just don't matter because at the end of the day they're warm-up and tune-up events for the Slams.
So with that in mind, I have to say that the numbers don't lie. Ana Ivanovic is the true #1 through the first half of the season, though barely. Her Slam results are head and shoulders better than Serena's. If they had played head to head this year and Serena had won, I would maybe let that be the tie-breaker and give the nod to Serena. And I must confess, I started this post thinking that Serena was #1 and had actually crafted it to get there. But at the end of the day her Slam performances don't justify the #1 ranking.
It'll be interesting to see where things go from here. I have a feeling Masha will fade unless she takes a good month or two off after the US Open to prepare for a run at the Year End Championships. I see Serena taking the US Open and possibly the gold in Beijing. And I see Ana making the semis/finals of the US Open, not medaling in Beijing (I think JJ will though), and taking it all at the Year End Championships. Should be fun!