Since becoming world No 1 last month Dinara Safina has had to learn how to deal with the jibes and the pointed questions. Serena Williams, her predecessor at the top of the rankings and the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion, says she still feels like the No 1. Besides, how can a player who has never won a Grand Slam title be regarded as the best in the world?
Anne Keothavong, drawn to meet Safina in the first round of the French Open, which starts today, is having none of it. "As world No 1 she's backed it up by winning the last two tournaments, in Rome and Madrid," the British No 1 said here yesterday. "She's yet to win a Grand Slam, but she has proved she's the most consistent player out there. She puts herself on the line and you can't really argue with that. If someone competes well at the big tournaments week in and week out then they deserve to be where they are."
Four months ago Safina suffered a crushing defeat by Williams in the Australian Open final, winning three games in a match that lasted less than an hour. Their clay-court campaigns, however, could hardly have been more different. Safina has lost one of her 15 matches – the final in Stuttgart against Svetlana Kuznetsova – while Williams has played three times and lost on each occasion, to Klara Zakopalova in Marbella, to Patty Schnyder in Rome and to Francesca Schiavone in Madrid, where she retired hurt with a knee injury.
Not that any of those results will have shaken the confidence of the American, who, like her sister Venus, reserves her best for the Grand Slam events. "We all know who the real No 1 is," Serena insists. "Quite frankly, I'm the best in the world."
Nevertheless it is Safina, who lost to Ana Ivanovic in last year's final, who is the favourite here. The Williams sisters are never at their best on clay, Ivanovic has slipped to No 8 in the world after winning only one title since her triumph last June, Jelena Jankovic has looked below par all year and Elena Dementieva never seems to have what it takes to make it over the finish line at Grand Slam events.
"If I continue playing like I have for the last three weeks I have a very good chance, so I want just to take one step at a time," Safina said. "I'm not even listening to what people are saying. I'm just focusing on myself, just taking one day at a time. I don't think about what I want to happen in 14, 15 or 16 days' time. I live for today. Today I had a practice. That's all. Tomorrow is another day."
Safina and Keothavong have never played each other as seniors, but the Russian won when they met in the semi-finals of junior Wimbledon eight years ago. "I know her pretty well," Safina said. "I think she's playing some good tennis."
Keothavong arrived here on Friday from the Warsaw Open, where she enjoyed the best clay-court run of her career, losing to Alona Bondarenko in the semi-finals. The result should take Keothavong back up to No 48 in the world rankings, equalling her highest position.
Having failed in five previous attempts to qualify for the French Open, Keothavong is looking forward to the chance to play on one of the main show courts at Roland Garros.
"It's a great opportunity," she said. "It's the toughest draw you could have asked for at a Grand Slam event, especially here at the French Open. She's the in-form player and she's been performing more consistently on clay than anyone else this year. She's probably the strong favourite, but I'll go out there and give it my best shot."
Keothavong hardly played on clay as a junior and used to avoid the surface, but since her improved ranking has given her the chance to enter the biggest events she has thrown herself into the clay-court season. "In all the matches I've had opportunities," she said.
A second Briton, Mel South, plays a qualifier, Portugal's Michelle Larcher De Brito, while Vera Zvonareva's withdrawal through injury yesterday also put Katie O'Brien into the draw as a "lucky loser", the 23-year-old having lost in the final round of qualifying. In the first round she will pay Olga Govortsova, of Belarus.