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SportsColumnistsJohn Jeansonne

Like it or not, Safina is No. 1 in the world

Here's a Pyrrhic victory for you: Dinara Safina won the No. 1 ranking in women's tennis earlier this year and, ever since, she has been pounded relentlessly as undeserving.

"Everybody is hitting on her and giving her a hard time about this - 'What happened on this serve, what happened on that?' " said her brother, the former men's No. 1 Marat Safin. "You open the page, 'She made eight double faults, 43 unforced errors, she struggled.' Who cares? She's No. 1 in the world. Leave her alone."

Again Thursday, Safina grappled with herself as much as 67th-ranked Kristine Barrois of Germany in a 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-3 victory: Fifteen double faults, one of which cost her the first set, 38 unforced errors. Yet, even a second-round loss to Barrois - even had Safina lost in the first round here - and even if No. 2 Serena Williams wins the Open, Safina is guaranteed to remain No. 1.

"Shocking," Williams said recently.

At issue is the intricate, mazelike ranking system used by the Women's Tennis Association; the age-old sports argument of consistency vs. big-event performance; and, mostly, Safina's own rickety showing in her sport's most visible events.

Plenty tennis observers (and Williams) are having a terrible time accepting that Safina, the 23-year-old Russian already in her ninth professional season, can carry the tour's premier designation even as she shoulders an 0-3 career record in major tournament finals.

In the past 12 months, while Williams won the 2008 U.S. Open, 2009 Australian Open and 2009 Wimbledon, Safina was unable to win so much as a set in her two Grand Slam title matches, against Williams in Melbourne and Svetlana Kuznetsova in Paris. (She also lost the 2008 French Open final to Ana Ivanovic in straight sets.)

That prompted Williams to say something along the lines of "we all know who's really No. 1" a couple of months ago. At one point, Williams dug subtly at Safin with, "I think Dinara did a great job to get to No. 1. She won Rome and Madrid."

Rome and Madrid. Those tournaments hold none of the Grand Slam cachet and, in fact, don't provide half the ranking points of the majors. But the WTA ranking computer - nicknamed "Medusa" by tennis Boswell Bud Collins years ago - rewards those who play and win more matches.

In 2009, Safina's match record was 51-12 in her 17 tournaments before the Open, with three titles; Williams was 38-10 in 13 events, but her only two titles were in majors; she thrice went out of events in the first round, even losing to the 95th-ranked player. So an oft-heard argument, to more accurately reflect a player's status, is to give a far heavier weight for success in the four majors.

Those, after all, are equivalent to any sport's playoffs, as opposed to the regular season. Also, while both men's and women's ranking systems make the Grand Slams worth at least double the points of any other tournament, there never is a consideration for whom a player defeated. No extra reward for winning against, say, No. 3 as opposed to No. 103.

Still, argued Amelie Mauresmo, a former No. 1, "When you see [Safina], she's winning tournaments and playing Grand Slam finals. OK, she has yet to win a Grand Slam, but she seems to me to be a pretty solid No. 1 still."

Kim Clijsters, back from a two-year sabbatical, reminded that she herself "was in that situation a few years ago where I was No. 1 and not having won a Grand Slam. Look, I really hope she's not letting it get to her. The wind blows harder when you're on top."

Meanwhile, Medusa - whether there are snakes in the computer's head or not - has spoken. "Everybody is giving her hard time about, 'Are you really No. 1 in the world?' " Safin said of his sister. "Yes, yes, she's really No. 1 in the world. Go check the ranking. She didn't do the ranking. Serena . . . even though she won two Grand Slams this year, she's No. 2, but that's the way. Deal with it."

New York Sports