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Consistency Is Key To Being No. 1

NEW YORK – OK, so what if Serena Williams has won the women’s singles at the three of the last four Grand Slam tournaments. Who cares that Serena is the defending champion here at the US Open. After all, we’re talking consistency, and that’s what really counts on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.

“If you play consistent, you can be very highly ranked,” said Venus Williams, Serena’s older sister. “I guess it’s all about playing consistent these days.”

Kim Clijsters knows something about being ranked number one in the world. She held that lofty spot herself some six years ago.
“It’s just a matter of consistency,” Clijsters said. “It’s the biggest key.”

If nothing else, Dinara Safina is consistent. She entered the US Open with the best main draw match winning percentage on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour with a 52-12 win-loss record. The Russian is one of four players to have won three titles this year, and she has reached the semifinals or better in the last four Grand Slam tournaments.

She also has consistently failed to come away from one of the sport’s four major tournaments with the championship bling. And that’s why there is controversy about her number one ranking.

“The poor girl, she’s trying her best,” said someone who should know, Marat Safin, Dinara’s brother and a former number one on the men’s tour. “She gets the attention, but not the kind of attention that a person deserves, especially when you’re number one in the world.

“Everybody is giving her hard time about, ‘Are you really number one in the world?’ Yes, yes, she’s really number one in the world. Go check on the ranking. She didn’t do the ranking.”

The burden of expectations proved Thursday to be almost heavier on Safina than the weight of her opponent’s shots. For her second straight match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Safina fought through her nerves as well as over-matched opponents.

She advanced to the third round by outlasting Germany’s Kristina Barrois 6-7 (5) 6-2 6-3, but instilled no fear in her future foes. As she did in her opener, another three-setter, Safina survived her own twin terrors of double faults and unforced errors.
“She was playing better at the end, serving better,” said Barrois, who turns 28 at the end of this month but has been a professional player for only three years. “I’m disappointed I came close. It was close, but not close enough.”

Barrois was playing in just her second US Open, losing in the opening round a year ago. Safina, on the other hand, was a finalist at both the Australian and French Opens earlier this year, falling to Serena Williams “Down Under” and Svetlana Kuznetsova in Paris.
That history made no difference under the bright skies and strong sunshine at Louis Armstrong Stadium. For most of the match, Barrois played Safina evenly, for better or worse. The world’s top player had 38 unforced errors, five fewer than her opponent; Barrois had six double faults, Safina 15.

“In the first set I played on my highest level,” the German said. “At the end she was serving well. The important thing is how you play the important points.”

For the second straight match, Safina was forced to go three sets. For the second straight match, she emerged the winner. That’s what number ones do.

American teen-ager Melanie Oudin pulled off the tournament’s first big upset, knocking off fourth-seeded Elena Dementieva 5-7 6-4 6-3. The 17-year-old is no stranger to the big stage, having reached the fourth round at Wimbledon earlier this summer.

“I played with no fear today,” said Oudin, a 17-year-old from Marietta, Georgia. “She’s expected to win and I just went out there and played my game and I came out with a win.”

Sixth-seeded Jelena Jankovic followed Dementieva out of the tournament, falling to Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan 6-3 6-7 (4) 7-6 (6). Jankovic, who held the world number one ranking at the beginning of this year, said the death of her grandmother Wednesday night was uppermost in her mind rather than the match.

Safina may have been able to have had a much easier day. She had two set points in the 12th game of the opening set, when Barrois double-faulted to 30-40 and again at ad point following a razor-sharp backhand pass down the line. But Barrois was able to hold and send the set into a tiebreak.

Of the 12 points played, seven went against serve. Barrois took the lead when Safina double-faulted at set point. Safina wasted no time moving out front in the second set. But Barrois broke back in the fourth game.

“I play a lot of slice,” Barrois said. “She likes a heavy ball, so I play slice to her and short.”

That strategy worked until unforced errors began overwhelming the German’s game. At the same time, Safina finally was able to quiet her nerves and cut down on her mistakes.

After Safina took a 4-3 lead in the final set, breaking her opponent in the seventh game at 30, Barrois jumped out to 0-40 advantage, triple break point, thanks to two double faults and a wild forehand that sailed wide. Safina won the next two points before Barrios had an open court but sailed a backhand long.

She bent over and buried her head into her hands, knowing her best chance at an upset had disappeared.

Safina finally held to 5-3 , then broke Barrois at love to advance to a third-round meeting against Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, who beat Italy’s Tathiana Garbin 6-1 6-3.