Wednesday September 9th, 2009

We now enter the Hit Parade portion of the athletic calendar, the annual Casey Kasem phase, when first college football, then basketball, is consumed by weekly rankings.

Sports has always loved rankings. Like it or not, it's one more gift from sports to the culture at large, because now everything is ranked. Rich people are ranked. Colleges. Best-dressed celebrities. Somebody has actually ranked the top explorers. Really. Marco Polo edged out Columbus and thus, I believe, Marco Polo qualifies to play in the Fiesta Bowl.

The college rankings, by The Associated Press and USA Today, are created by sports reporters and coaches. The coaches changed their system this year, so their ballots can remain secret, and thus they're free to vote to inflate their own team and conference, and get back at coaches they don't like without anybody knowing.

But we believe in rankings.

Then again, the whole process is, well, rank, because, after all, nobody can possibly compare teams all over the country with any degree of intelligence. Nobody can even see many of them play. It's like being in Congress and voting on bills you know nothing about. So, it's very American.

Of course, no system is going to satisfy everybody. The latest brouhaha is in women's tennis, where rankings pretty much operate on Woody Allen's famous axiom that just showing up is 80 percent of life. In order to please sponsors, the Women's Tennis Association wants its best players to drag themselves to as many tournaments as possible, so the ranking system rewards attendance over good grades.

As a consequence, when the U.S. Open began last week, Dinara Safina was ranked No. 1, even though she's never won a Grand Slam tournament, while Serena Williams, who's won three of the last four Grand Slams, was, ridiculously, ranked No. 2. And, sure enough, the brittle Safina lost in just the third round. Apparently, choking is the other 20 percent of life.

Serena, of course, enjoys all the fuss. Not so long ago, for example, she said: "I'm like one of those girls on a reality show that has all the drama, and everyone in the house hates them." But then, she wouldn't be ranked No. 2 if she cared more about playing in the lesser tournaments, where she all too often only goes through the motions.

That's odd for a champion. For example, her current superstar peers like Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps simply don't want to lose anywhere.

But all of Serena only shows for the Grand Slams -- and hey, it works for her. On Tuesday night she got safely through to the semifinals.

So tennis fans have even more reason to beat up on poor, sweet, No. 1 Dinara Safina for always trying hard, but too often losing when it counts. Serena will still remain No. 2 in the goofy rankings, even if she wins the Open once again. She's hard-boiled, she's a fierce competitor, but then, as her shirt said the other day, "Can't spell dynasty without nasty."

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