Serena Williams back on top of the world
The undisputed queen of the court is back in her rightful place, writes Paul Newman in Dubai
The rest of the world had known it was so for many a moon and yesterday the women's world rankings finally caught up. Two years and four months after she last stood at the summit, Serena Williams was officially listed as the best female player on the planet. Given that the 31-year-old American has won 15 Grand Slam tournaments and holds the Wimbledon, US Open, Olympic and WTA Championships titles, there can be no argument this time about the world No 1 deserving her status.
Yesterday's updated list showed that Williams had replaced Victoria Azarenka at the top of the rankings, though there is a chance that the Belarusian will reclaim top spot after this week's Dubai Duty Free Championships. Azarenka arrived here yesterday fresh from her victory over Williams in the final in Doha, which ended her run of eight successive defeats to the American.
For the moment, nevertheless, the new world No 1 is relieved to have reached a goal that had clearly been a greater ambition than she had dared to disclose in recent months.
Williams admitted: "It was such a long journey and after winning Wimbledon and the US Open and the [WTA] Championships, I thought: 'I just don't think I can win any more. I don't know what it takes to be No 1.'
"But I think my never-give-up attitude really helped me for this whole journey in the past two years to continue and to just keep fighting, even when things looked horrible in the personal life or in the professional life. You've just got to stay positive and never give up."
The American said she had avoided talking about the No 1 ranking for fear of putting pressure on herself. Its importance in her mind was evident in her tearful reaction when she earned the ranking points she needed to overhaul Azarenka.
"I didn't imagine that it meant that much to me," Williams said. "I did not expect to be unable to stop crying. I didn't expect to feel that way at all. I just thought I would be happy and just move on."
No player in modern times has made as many comebacks as Williams, whose up-and-down career is reflected in the fact that this is her sixth spell at the head of the rankings.
She first reached the top in 2002, stayed there for 57 weeks, but then took more than five years to return, which remains the longest gap between reigns by any No 1.
The latest comeback is surely her most remarkable. Twenty months ago, Williams returned after a year out of the game, having had two operations after severing a tendon in her foot and then having been rushed to hospital to have a large haematoma removed from her stomach after a blood clot had travelled from a leg to her lungs.
"I never thought I'd play again," Williams said. "Then I thought I'd never be able to win tournaments or Grand Slams. No 1 was so far off. It was always a dream."
When Williams lost to the world No 111, Virginie Razzano, at last year's French Open – her first loss in the opening round in 47 Grand Slam tournaments – it seemed that her comeback had stalled.
Between that defeat and her loss to Azarenka on Sunday, however, Williams has lost just two matches. She has won six of her last nine tournaments dating back to last summer's Wimbledon, which followed the appointment of the Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou as her coach.
At 31 years and four months Williams is the oldest woman to hold the No 1 position since the computer world rankings were first introduced in 1975, Chris Evert having set the previous mark at 30 years and 11 months in 1985. Nevertheless, Williams would have to stay at the top until February 2018 in order to overtake Steffi Graf's extraordinary record of 377 weeks as world No 1.
It is 14 years since Williams won her first Grand Slam title, at the 1999 US Open, and she has seen off wave after wave of pretenders to her status as the game's best player.
Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, for example, have all reached the top, retired, come back and retired again since Williams first became world No 1.
The bad news for the American's current rivals is that she shows no signs of slowing up. "I feel really young, like I'm 22 or something," she said. "I don't know if it's because I don't play every week, but I feel great.I feel like there is so much more I can work on, and there's so much room for improvement for me. The fact that that's still available is really exciting."
In recent years the credibility of the rankings has regularly been called into question because players without a Grand Slam title to their name have reached No 1. Caroline Wozniacki spent 67 weeks at the top, Dinara Safina 26 weeks and Jelena Jankovic 18 weeks.
Williams might have spent more time at No 1 if she had performed better away from the Grand Slam tournaments – her tally of 47 titles is modest considering that she has been the world's best player for more than a decade – but her ability to scale the heights when it matters most is probably one of the reasons for her longevity.
"I've never played every week," Williams said. "I've never played 30 tournaments in a year. I didn't play juniors, so I didn't travel the world and get burned out early. I went to school. I had a couple of unfortunate injuries that put me out for a year. Maybe that helped at the end of the day."
Now that she has proved a point by returning to the top, she does not see the defence of her No 1 position as her biggest priority.
"I can't go in every week trying to do it," she said. "At this point I feel like I'm just going to put my focus on the Grand Slams."
However, should the No 1 status slip from Williams' grasp in the coming weeks, it will do nothing to change her standing in the minds of almost everyone in the game.
Sloane Stephens, the American who is seen by some as a long-term successor to Williams, said here yesterday: "I always saw her at No 1. Just because you have a computer ranking of No 1 doesn't mean she wasn't No 1 when she won the Olympics, when she won Wimbledon, when she won the US Open. The computer ranking is a computer ranking, but I think we all knew who the best player in the world was."
Serena stats: how she's dominated
OLDEST PLAYERS TO HOLD WORLD NO 1 RANKING
Serena Williams: 31 years, 4 months, 24 days (18 February 2013)
Chris Evert: 30 years, 11 months, 3 days (24 November 1985)
Martina Navratilova: 30 years, 9 months, 29 days (16 August 1987)
Lindsay Davenport: 29 years, 7 months, 8 days (29 January 2006)
Steffi Graf: 27 years, 9 months, 16 days (30 March 1997)
SERENA WILLIAMS' SIX REIGNS AT THE TOP
July 2002 – Aug 2003: 57 weeks
Sept 2008 – Oct 2008: 4 weeks
Feb 2009 – April 2009: 11 weeks
Oct 2009 – Oct 2009: 2 weeks
Nov 2009 – Oct 2010: 49 weeks
From Feb 2013: 1 week
MOST WEEKS AT WORLD NO 1
Steffi Graf: 377 weeks (from Aug 1987)
Martina Navratilova: 332 weeks (July 1978)
Chris Evert: 260 weeks (November 1975)
Martina Hingis: 209 weeks (March 1997)
Monica Seles: 178 weeks (March 1991)
Serena Williams: 124 weeks (July 2002)
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