Passing shots: Safina chasing elusive Slam title to silence critics

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Maybe you're one of the many folks who can't wrap your head around the idea of a player who's never won a Grand Slam owning the top ranking ahead of an 11-time major titlist who holds three of the four trophies.

But wherever you stand on the year's central talking point in the women's game -- to wit, whether Dinara Safina or Serena Williams is more deserving of the No. 1 mantle -- you've got to admit Safina's mutation from precocious up-and-comer to computer-rankings whipping girl has made for one of the more unfortunate storylines of the season.

"I think if you hold three Grand Slam titles maybe you should be No. 1, but not on the WTA Tour, obviously," Serena told reporters after her Wimbledon triumph earlier this month. "My motivation is maybe just to win another Grand Slam and stay No. 2, I guess. I'd rather definitely be No. 2 and hold three Grand Slams in the past year than be No. 1 and not have any."

So it has gone for Safina in 2009, with the snipes, the barbs, the criticism. Instead of garnering praise for the progress she's made since her initial breakthrough during the '08 clay-court season -- most evident in her improved fitness and mental game -- the 23-year-old Russian has become a symbol of misguided contempt for a rankings system many dismiss as recklessly counter-intuitive. There's probably never been a player who'd be more popular if she weren't ranked No. 1.

Yes, Safina has been prone to spectacular implosions in her most visible matches. And yes, the propensity to shrink from those moments isn't exactly the traditional mark of a World No. 1. But her results in the past four Slams -- two appearances in finals and four in the semis -- aren't exactly lamentable. Safina's secret is simple: She plays frequently and frequently she wins.

"It's not about one, two tournaments how you play. It's a result of tournament by tournament, day to day that you play," Safina told reporters at Wimbledon. "It's not like just that you focus on the Grand Slam. I won Rome. I won Madrid. I've been in the final French Open. I've been in the final of Australia. Yes, I haven't won it, but this is not end of the world. I still play consistent."

Is Safina's ranking the result of her underappreciated consistency or the product of a broken system -- like a college basketball coach manipulating the RPI through careful risk management? That's been the $64,000 Question this season in women's tennis and the truth is somewhere in between. Last week provides a lucid example.

With 19 of the top 20 players in the WTA rankings idle -- most in preparation for this week's Bank of the West Classic at Stanford University -- Safina chose to play in an undistinguished $220,000 event in Slovenia. Unsurprisingly, she plowed through the draw without dropping a set into her seventh final of the season, where she rallied past Sara Errani for her 12th career title.

She played that tournament -- and, yes, she bagged another title -- but she's sitting out Stanford, the U.S. Open Series opener on the women's side, where the competition is stronger and the exposure greater.

Safina's No. 1 ranking is a testament to her consistency, workmanlike streak and commitment to the tour. But the longer she goes without that elusive major tournament, the louder these questions promise to reverberate. Whether she can silence her critics next month at the last Grand Slam of the decade should be one of the Open's more compelling plotlines.

In the meantime, Safina remains the tortoise to Serena's hare.

The U.S. Open Series -- the six-week string of hard court tournaments leading up to the season's final Grand Slam -- began one week earlier on the men's side at the Indianapolis Tennis Championships. That's where Robby Ginepri knocked off American compatriot Sam Querrey in straight sets.

It's been some odyssey for Ginepri, who'd gone four years since his last ATP title. Earlier this year, the Georgia native suffered a burst appendix and shed 30 pounds in the hospital. He'd won just four of 17 matches this season entering Indy, with none of those victories coming back-to-back.

On Monday, Ginepri climbed 39 rungs to No. 56 in the ATP rankings. The triumph could do wonders for Ginepri's state of mind entering the U.S. Open -- the surface where he's always played his finest tennis.

"When you have a lot of losses, you start questioning if you can play at this level," Ginepri said. "It creeps in the back of your mind, so this is definitely a confidence boost for me the rest of the summer."

Also from the What Year Is This? files: Another drought was snapped at the week's other men's event, when Nikolay Davydenko offed Paul-Henri Mathieu in just 88 minutes for his first title in 13 months.

The triumph catapulted Davydenko back into the top 10 -- he's at No. 9 in this week's table -- after the 28-year-old had slipped to No. 12, his lowest ranking since May 2005.

"Bruno was hilariously shocking, wrong in sooooo many ways, but did laugh a ton"--Rik de Voest, chiming in with a rave review for Sacha Baron Cohen's latest, July 22, 11:25 p.m.

"Watching Cash Cab marathon on discovery channel... and dominating."--Amer Delic, channeling his inner Ken Jennings, July 23, 5:24 p.m.

"wimbledon womens champs in 2029-2040 .... the federer girls :) congrats to the new parents!"--Andy Roddick, sending well wishes to Roger Federer's newborn twin daughters, July 24, 9:40 a.m.