Over the years, we have come to associate Serena Williams with the No. 1 ranking in the women's game. Whenever a new and less proven woman ascends to the top spot, the critics are quick to declare this or that woman an "untrue" No. 1. Sometimes, like in the case of Dinara Safina, Serena contributes to the fuss.
With 13 Slams titles to her name and a game strong and powerful enough to warrant speculation about her being the best ever, it is natural to doubt the ranking system, when she isn't automatically at the top.
The funny thing is, that despite her obvious talent and dominance, she's only been the No. 1 for a combined 123 weeks. That is six weeks more than Justine Henin, 25 weeks more than Lindsay Davenport and almost 100 weeks less than Martina Hingis. Not to mention Graf, Evert and Navratilova.
Kim Clijsters just won the WTA championships, whereas Serena as the defending champion didn't even play. In fact, she hasn't played on tour since Wimbledon and only played six tournaments this year. As a consequence, she lost her No. 1 ranking last month. Today, she fell out of the top three and now rests at No. 4.
Will she ever again be at the top of the rankings?
Looking at her results this year, it is clear that she can still play. Two Grand Slam victories in three appearances is pretty damn impressive on any standard. She is undoubtedly the fixture and the dominating player of the last decade, but will she continue to be so in the future? Or rather, will she dominate enough to reach the No. 1 spot again?
I am in serious doubt about it.
The new No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki has had one of the best falls seen in many years. She came up short in the two most important tournaments, the US Open and the WTA championship, but she won three Premier tournaments and two other tournaments. And as the first half of the year wasn't extraordinary for the 20-year-old Dane, there's reason to believe she can add quite a few points here, whereas Serena has all of her points, including two Slams, to defend here.
In other words, Wozniacki is pretty hard to catch for Serena until the second half of the season, where Wozniacki has everything to defend and Serena has, well, nothing. However this is also the time in which Serena turns...30. A tough age for any champion, not least for a champion, who's been torn by injuries quite a few times.
The two players only met two times, both times in 2009. The first time the then-18.5-year-old Dane had three match points, but couldn't close out the deal and lost in the third set tiebreak. The second was in Doha last year, where Wozniacki had to retire with injury, one 6-4 set down, leading 1-0 in the second.
Today, there's little doubt that Caroline is a new player and winning against her isn't going to be any easier. She still has areas to improve, most notably forehand, net-play and from time to time, second serve, but she is improving day by day, and should be able to challenge Serena when they meet again.
The trouble with the No. 1 ranking doesn't stop here for Serena though. Kim Clijsters' first "full" season saw her overtake Serena Williams in the top three today. And whereas many will doubt that Caroline has what it takes to beat Serena in an all-important match, few will doubt that when it comes to Clijsters. In fact, she did so in the famous "shove the ball down your throat" semifinal at the US Open last year.
On grass, I would give the advantage to Serena, but on hard court, I would say it is pretty much a toss-up between the two of them.
Then we have the new No. 2, Vera Zvonareva. She's clearly been a new player this season and just lacks one big title to make her season perfect. But two runner-ups in the Grand Slams and a semifinal appearance in Doha aren't too bad. Serena normally wins, but Vera is a new player, so she may be able to put up more of a fight. And with regards to the ranking, her many more tournaments give her a significant advantage, as is the case with Wozniacki.
Samantha Stosur is another 'new' kid on the block and perhaps the most dominating player in the first half of the season, save Williams' Grand Slam appearances. She clearly possesses enough firepower to take the match to Serena and is the one woman in today's game, who matches Serena's serve.
Serena leads 3-2, but two of those wins came, when Stosur wasn't even ranked in the top 45. Since she ascended to the top 20, she leads their H2H 2-1 including this year's win in the French Open. Which, incidentally was the first time since the French Open 2008, Serena didn't win the Grand Slam or got defeated by the eventual champion. Not a bad stat.
Finally, we have the big question mark: Justine Henin.
Henin was supposed to make a Clijsters-like return and started out like a thunderstorm, losing with the narrowest margins to Clijsters in Brisbane and then in three sets to Serena in Australian Open. Her results on clay weren't half as good as expected and she has been out with injury for the major part of the year.
Justine is still to show us, she's the player she was when she retired, and she also has the age-factor ticking against her, turning 29 just before next year's Wimbledon. However, if she does find her game, she has what it takes to challenge Serena on every single surface.
What's the point of bringing up all these players in an article about Serena? Well, the point is that winning the Grand Slams isn't going to be any easier for Serena in the future. Rather, it's going to be harder.
Some of the best players of the decade, Clijsters and Henin, have returned and new players have emerged. All put together, there are quite a few players out there who can challenge her on her way.
And whereas we may expect Serena to play more tournaments if she stays injury free, it is unrealistic to expect she will return to a full schedule. Therefore she has to perform better in the tournaments she actually does play.
My estimation is that she needs something like two slams and a WTA tour championship plus a couple of other good results to regain her No. 1 position.
Can the aging champion do that?
She does perform better at bigger tournaments. With 13 Slam wins in a mere 16 finals, she's almost unbeatable when she can see the finish line. And as her game relies a lot more on her power and her ability to dominate her opponent than her speed, losing half a step in speed doesn't mean as much to her as it does to, say, Roger Federer.
She should be more than able to win Slams in the next 2-3 years at least. But the combined challenge presented by the current field seems to be too great for her to do it on a consistent basis and gain enough points throughout the year. At least not with working bees like Wozniacki, Zvonareva and Stosur out on the tour every day.
Wozniacki's consistency requires Serena to either outperform any other player by a large margin in the big tournaments throughout the year or perform much more consistently, and more often, in the lesser tournaments.
Is she willing to do that? Can she do that? Or is the opposition to tough, even for the champion of the decade?
My prediction, however, is that we'll never see her as the No. 1 again.