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Safina again fails to justify top billing

Ranking debate reopens as No 1 makes hard work of lowly first-round opponent

Prepare for another fortnight of debate over the merits of the women's world rankings. Dinara Safina will still be the world No 1 at the end of the US Open, whether or not Serena Williams keeps hold of the third of her four Grand Slam titles, but on the evidence of her first-round match here last night you would doubt whether the Russian deserved a place even in the top 20.

Safina beat Olivia Rogowska, an 18-year-old Australian ranked No 167 in the world, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4 after two hours and 35 minutes of tennis that had her coach, Zeljko Krajan, looking like a man on the verge of a breakdown. The statistics told their own story, the match featuring 113 unforced errors, 24 double-faults, 15 breaks of serve and just 37 winners.

Unheralded first-round opponents are not usually Safina's problem. She has developed a reputation as a "flat-track bully" who brushes aside lesser players and accumulates ranking points by winning tournaments below Grand Slam level. In the last 12 months she has won titles in Tokyo, Rome, Madrid and Portoroz. It is a lucrative business: at 23 Safina has already pocketed $8.89m (about £5.5m) in prize-money, compared with Rogowska's earnings of $86,886 (£54,000).

However, the final stages of the biggest events are another matter. Safina has reached the semi-finals or better of the last four Grand Slam tournaments, only to crumble when on the brink of her big breakthrough.

Serena Williams beat Safina here for the loss of only five games in last year's semi-finals and went on to crush the Russian in less than an hour in the final of the Australian Open. A 6-4, 6-2 defeat by Svetlana Kuznetsova in the final of the French Open (where Safina had lost only five games in her first four matches) represented some sort of improvement, but a month later she took just one game off Venus Williams in the semi-finals at Wimbledon.

Rogowska, who modestly lists reaching the game's top 150 as her goal for this year, is a baseline slugger who appears to get a nosebleed whenever she is anywhere near the net. Nevertheless she played with plenty of spirit and stuck to her task, even though her error count outstripped Safina's.

The daughter of emigrants to Australia, Rogowska is one of a number of players of Polish descent who are making their mark on the women's game. The sisters Agnieszka and Urszula Radwanska, ranked No 12 and 63 in the world respectively, are the only top 100 players who fly under the Poland flag, but Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki (No 8), Germany's Sabine Lisicki (No 25) and Canada's Aleksandra Wozniak (No 39) all come from Polish families.

There were six breaks of serve in the first set, which finished, appropriately enough, with Safina hitting a double fault after her first serve barely reached halfway up the net and her second flew long. From 2-2 in the second set the Russian found some sort of rhythm to level the match, but when Rogowska led 3-0 in the decider and 40-15 on Safina's serve the Russian looked set to become the first women's top seed to lose in the first round here.

As the tension grew, however, the Australian kept hitting the ball long. At 4-4 Safina forced a succession of break points, converting the last of them when Rogowska struck a poor forehand beyond the baseline. A grateful Safina served out to love to take the match.

"God knows how I pulled it out," Safina said afterwards, admitting that she had played poorly. "I will never give up. It doesn't matter how I play, I will run and stay there for ever."

Jelena Jankovic, beaten by Serena Williams in last year's final, is another who knows what it is like to have her world No 1 status questioned because she does not have a Grand Slam title. The 24-year-old Serb has slipped to No 5 in the rankings but her form has picked up recently and she had few problems beating Italy's Roberta Vinci 6-2, 6-3.

Novak Djokovic, the runner-up here two years ago, hit the ground running with a 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 victory over Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic, while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the world No 7, swept aside the American Chase Buchanan for the loss of only three games.