Wozniacki Claims WTA No. 1. Let the Debate Begin. Again.

After waking up this morning I read the news, and not at all unexpected, that Caroline Wozniacki defeated Petra Kvitova 6-3, 6-2 in the China Open to not only advance to the quarterfinals but to also claim the No. 1 ranking on the WTA tour. And while Wozniacki celebrated her milestone achievement to the beat of Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best”, halfway around the world, another loud debate ensued on whether the young Danish player was deserving of the top ranking considering her lack of a Grand Slam title.

We’ve gone through all this before and not just during the uneasy reign of former No. 1 Dinara Safina whose steep fall in the rankings soon after was caused in part by her inability to deal with blistering criticism she was unworthy of the the top spot. So even if the debate over who really is No. 1 for the WTA is nothing new, does the ongoing debate hurt or help the sport?

In 1987, Martina Navratilova, who only won three titles that year, though two big ones Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, claimed she was the No. 1 player in the world while Steffi Graf, who won a number of titles including Roland Garros, achieved the top spot by the end of the year even though she had lost to Navratilova in the finals of Wimbledon and New York. Navratilova’s argument was that since she had won the sport’s two biggest titles (in her mind), defeating Graf in the process, that should have been enough to secure the top spot. But Graf, who had the more consistent year, was rewarded with No. 1, something she held onto for 377 weeks, the tour’s record.

Even with all the tinkering the WTA has done with the rankings process, the debate over how they determine No.1 rages on. The ATP tour, which has had its fair share of Slam-less No.1’s back in the day has largely avoided the same debate over the “top man” though Novak Djokovic, before making the finals of the U.S. Open this year, received ridicule at being No. 2 in the world despite not having done anything but be consistent for the last three years. And ultimately consistency on a week-in, week-out basis is what both tours reward in the rankings.

No matter who you believe is the “real” No.1, the fact remains that for 2010, Serena Williams, though winning Australia and Wimbledon, only played six events this year. Wozniacki earned the top ranking, for the moment, by simply playing more tournaments while along the way winning five titles. Had Wozniacki won the U.S. Open this year, she would have earned the top spot there and all this debate would be moot. But alas, she did not, and so it ensues. Debates over who is the best player or best team is a constant topic in all of sports so one could argue that any lively debate about tennis can only help keep the sport top of mind in a crowded sports marketplace. But, even if you feel this debate is needed to improve the tour, I don’t think Wozniacki, if she does hold onto No. 1 for awhile, will breakdown to any criticism she might face about being “unworthy”. Will she need to win a Slam in 2011 to back up her top spot? Probably, but only she can determine that, and not the ranking system.

Wozniacki could help her cause to cement her status as the WTA’s best player by taking another title in Beijing. It’s probably appropriate that she next has to face former No.1 Ana Ivanovic, who surprised many by defeating Elena Dementieva 7-6, 7-6 in the previous round. Ivanovic, whose own fall in the rankings was helped in part by her not being able to deal with the pressure of being No. 1 summed up her feelings in her post-match press conference about how she still dreams of being “the best”. “That’s my goal, not only to become No.1 again, but I think I can win Slams. That’s what I’m aiming for. I’m still so young, I’m not even 23 yet, so I still have many years in front of me.”

Caroline, congratulations and enjoy your achievement. Just know that everyone is looking up to you and figuring out how they can take your place.

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