With all but one of the top-12 ranked women in the world amongst the 56 contesting a $426,000 winner’s purse, there was another prize on the line as the top four seeds played their way to the semifinals: the No1 ranking.
And with her dramatic three-set victory over Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals, Serena Williams claimed a headline-grabbing return to the top spot, displacing the woman who had held the No1 position for over a year, Victoria Azarenka.
It made Williams the oldest woman to hold the top spot since the computer rankings were introduced in November 1975. At 31 years, four months and 24 days, she overtook the previous oldest, Chris Evert, by more than five months.
It is the American’s sixth time at No1, nearly 11 years after her first: “I never thought I would be here again…It has been a long road back and it’s a great feeling. It has been a lot of hard work but I don’t want to stop here.”
A remarkable 2012 season saw Williams claim her 14th and 15th Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon and the US Open, as well as gold medals in singles and doubles at the London Olympics and the WTA Championships in Istanbul. She finished the year with a 58-4 record, the best single-season percentage since Justine Henin in 2007.
Williams then began the 2013 season by winning in Brisbane to bring her career tally to 47—the most among active players and 10th most all time. She followed it with a quarterfinal finish at the Australian Open and, with her win over Kvitova followed by victory over Maria Sharapova in the semis, her run extended to 60 wins from 63 matches since the start of last year’s clay season.
However, Doha was to deliver more headlines before it was finally played out. Williams had beaten the woman she deposed at No1 in their previous nine matches, but Azarenka made a real statement of intent about reclaiming the top ranking by beating her nemesis Williams and defending her Qatar title, 7-6(6), 2-6, 6-3.
Azarenka, therefore, has started to put together the kind of opening to a season that she had last year, when she went 26-0 before finally falling in the quarterfinals of Miami. Thus far, Azarenka is 14-0 this year.
With such a significant end to the Doha event, there was all to play for as the women’s tour moved along the Gulf to the prestigious $2 million tournament in Dubai. However, the battle for No1 took an unexpected turn with the last-minute withdrawal of Azarenka from the Dubai draw with a foot injury. She missed last year’s Dubai Duty Free with injury, too.
It leaves the way open for Williams not just to extend her lead at the top of the rankings but also possibly to claim one of the few titles that has eluded her.
So far, Williams has twice fallen in the semi-finals in Dubai but with Azarenka, as well as Sharapova, missing, this could be her best chance yet to add Dubai to her trophy cabinet.
It will be no easy task even so. Seven of the top 10 in the world are in the draw, and Williams faces world No11 Marion Bartoli in her opening match, followed possibly by 2011 winner Caroline Wozniacki and then either defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska or the woman who pressed her so hard in Doha, Kvitova.
Indeed the bottom half of the draw looks the tougher of the two, especially without Azarenka topping the list. The top section may even open up for a powerful non-seed such as No12 Nadia Petrova or for Sam Stosur to find some form after a poor 3-6 win-loss run so far this season.
For Williams to take Dubai on the back of her tough final-stage battles in Doha would be a remarkable testament to the stamina and fitness of the oldest No1 in the 40 or so years of the WTA rankings.
But she is a woman who, time and again, has thrown away the rule-books when it comes to achievements on a tennis court. With Serena, everything is possible.
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