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For the third time in just over two years, a Slam-less #1 hovers above the volatile WTA rankings.  Stemming the waves of scorn that routinely sweep across such players, we consider a few factors that might bolster the Great Dane’s newfound grandeur.

1) She has shone at the top WTA events: If one combines the Premier Mandatory and Premier Five tournaments to create a “super-tier” of events, Wozniacki led the Tour in capturing three of the nine most important titles on the calendar outside the majors.  In 2010, the Dane became the only player to win one Premier Mandatory event and reach the final of another (Beijing, Indian Wells), while she also was the only player to win more than one Premier Five event.  Excluding the clay season, in fact, the new #1 reached at least the quarterfinals in six of seven hard-court Premier Mandatory and Premier Five events, a feat likewise unequaled by her rivals.  When Wozniacki gained the #1 ranking, she had won three consecutive Premier Mandatory/Premier Five tournaments.  Therefore, her rise to the top spot accompanied a sensational second-half surge at marquee tournaments with prestigious player fields.  Although the Dane continues to feast upon the Copenhagens and New Havens of the world, her diet extends well beyond them.

2) She knows how to compete in finals: Not just a serial semifinalist and finalist, Wozniacki has won her last six championship matches.  To be sure, the title tilts in Ponte Vedra Beach, Copenhagen, and New Haven bear few (if any) implications for the player who defeated Govortsova, Zakopalova, and Petrova at those events.  Yet Wozniacki’s victories over Zvonareva and Dementieva in Canada, Tokyo, and Beijing revealed dimensions in which this 20-year-old trumps many of her older, equally talented peers. At the Rogers Cup, she responded with consummate poise to the challenge of playing the semifinal and final not only in one day but on a Monday, a situation that clearly flustered opponents Kuznetsova and Zvonareva.  In the Tokyo final, she rebounded from a horrific first set during which she hit no winners at all, edging herself into the contest and patiently chipping away at Dementieva’s ever-brittle mind.  When the battleground shifted across the Sea of Japan, Wozniacki stayed confident and consistent in her tactics after losing the second set to Zvonareva.  Fortified with her self-belief, the Dane outlasted an opponent who drifted away from her own strategies as the final neared its climax.

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3) She can play with any Slam champion: Although many observers might imagine otherwise, an 18-year-old Wozniacki severely tested Serena when they met in Sydney just two weeks before the American won the 2009 Australian Open.  The 13-time major champion found herself forced to save three match points on that occasion before eking out a third-set tiebreak.  Against Henin at this year’s Miami tournament, Wozniacki rallied to win a first-set tiebreak after the Belgian had served for the first set.  Despite eventually losing that match, she competed resiliently throughout all three sets and compelled Henin to muster some of the most focused, fearless tennis of her comeback.  A few months later, Wozniacki finally scored that first victory over a Slam champion on a major stage by defusing Sharapova at the US Open.  And, when she reached her maiden Slam final in New York last year, she didn’t embarrass herself as have so many fellow arrivistes.  Had Wozniacki collected a few more key points late in the first set of that clash with Clijsters, the debate over yet another Slam-less #1 might never have occurred.  Still just 20, she has ample time to learn how to win those points in the future.

4) Beware of Major Myopia: Tennis aficionados should hesitate to trivialize the non-Slams too contemptuously.  If one claims that only eight weeks in a 44-week season matter, one verges upon diminishing the status of the sport overall—as well as the status of the WTA, which doesn’t operate the majors.  Conversely, would Schiavone seem a more compelling #1 than Wozniacki?  Using Slam titles as the only criterion for determining #1, the Italian trumps the Dane, but few observers would consider her a superior player overall.  By focusing upon majors to the exclusion of all other credentials, however, one rewards unpredictable anomalies like Schiavone over consistent performers like Wozniacki.  The Dane’s laudable commitment to the Tour and its Roadmap represents a model that the WTA would much prefer to witness from its rising stars.

5) What does #1 actually signify? Derived from a 12-month period of performance, the top ranking doesn’t identify the best player on any given day.  If such were the case, Aravane Rezai and Martinez Sanchez would have captured it during the clay season.  Rather than a forward-looking predictor, #1 constitutes a retrospective measuring device that defines the woman who has compiled the steadiest, most predictable sequence of tournaments over the preceding year.  Since the current WTA culture glorifies individuality and hence unpredictability or idiosyncrasy, the top ranking no longer carries the same value that it once did.  On the other hand, Wozniacki’s determination to defy the flux around her testifies to a stubbornness that has characterized legions of Slam champions.  Before many more majors pass, this 20-year-old Dane seems likely to join their ranks.

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We return at the start of next week with a preview of the Doha field, which has shifted as much as the desert sands.

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