No.1 ranking ranks second for women’s finalists

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No pressure, then. Not only is the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup up for grabs on Saturday night, there is also the small matter of $4.5million in prize money. Oh, and just in case you thought that was not enough, whoever wins the Australian Open 2019 women’s final will be the new world No.1. No pressure at all, then. 

Simona Halep, the outgoing top banana, has been looking down on her rivals from the top of the rankings pile since February 26 last year. She first took pole position in the October of 2017, having chased the elusive ranking around the circuit for the previous five months. 

She kept coming so close – one match away on three occasions – and still she could not claim it for her own. And then she won the title in Beijing, the points added up and she was finally crowned as the best player on the planet. And apart from a brief spell after the Australian Open last year when Caroline Wozniacki deposed her after winning in Melbourne, she has stayed there ever since. 

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Halep's loss to Williams in the fourth round marked the end of her No.1 reign, for now

That in itself is something of an achievement. Until then, every second week seemed to throw up a potential new No.1 – could Karolina Pliskova overtake Angelique Kerber? And if she did, how long would it be before Garbine Muguruza ousted her? And so it went on. 

MORE: Osaka v Kvitova - how do they match up?

It was all Serena Williams’ fault, of course. Before she became pregnant and went off on maternity leave in 2017, she had been world No.1 for 186 weeks and was only elbowed out of the way by Kerber in the September of 2016. 

When Serena won the 2017 Australian title, she regained that top spot and it seemed as if normal service had been resumed. But then she did not play again until March of last year – and even then it was only a couple of matches. Her comeback proper began at the French Open but in her absence, everyone had been having a crack at getting to the top. There was a revolving door policy for the top office until Halep took charge. 

Now, though, it comes down to Saturday night’s finalists, Petra Kvitova and Naomi Osaka: the winner takes all. And yet neither of them is particularly bothered about rankings. Oh, sure, it would be nice to have, but it is Grand Slam silverware that forces them out of bed of a morning and out onto the practice court.

“For me, my main goal is winning this tournament,” Osaka said. “I think the ranking comes after that. I tend to do better if I focus on one goal. 

MORE: Osaka has eyes on final step

“I love Grand Slams. This is a place where I think it is worth all the training. When you're little, you watch the Grand Slams, you watch all the players play, the legendary matches here. For me, this is the most important tournament. There's only four of them a year, so of course I want to do the best that I can here.” 

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Osaka is one win away from taking back-to-back major titles

Well, that is pretty clear then: the titles are important; the ranking is an added bonus. 

For Kvitova, there is a little more to it than that. For a start, she has never bothered about numbers, points and calculations. Then there is the story of her comeback from a knife attack a little over two years ago. Lucky to be alive, she had no idea whether the knife wounds to her left hand, her playing hand, would ever heal sufficiently for her to play again, much less compete at the top level. 

MORE: Kvitova’s win one for the true believers

But return she did, winning the Birmingham title in only her second event back. From there she built and worked and by last year, she was winning trophies to a band playing – five of them in all, more than anyone else on the tour. But when it came to the Grand Slams, the two-time Wimbledon champion could only reach one quarterfinal at the US Open two years ago. 

Now, though, she is as fit as she has ever been, she is confident and she is doing her best not to think about the importance – or the pressure – that goes with Saturday’s match. She just wants that trophy. 

“I don't really care, to be honest,” Kvitova said when pushed a few days ago on the possibility of becoming No.1. 

When prodded again on the eve of the final – the inhabitants of the press bunker are persistent souls – she still did not care. 

“From my side, doesn't really affect me at all,” she said. “I'm here to play in the final of the major, and that's how I do have my mindset. If that happens, it happens. It will just be very nice bonus of it, but I'm really thinking about the title only.”
 

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For Kvitova, making it back to the sharp end at majors means more than top spot

As for Halep, she was not too bothered by giving up her place at the top. This is only the start of the season and there is plenty of tennis to play yet. Kvitova has almost 1400 ranking points to defend in the next couple of months; Osaka has 1000 to defend. This race ain’t over yet.

“There is another chance after this tournament to go back to No. 1,” Halep said as she left Melbourne Park. 

“So the main goal is just to play as good as I can every match, to win every match I play, so the ranking doesn't really matter.”

As everyone who wields a bat professionally knows: keep winning the titles that matter, and the ranking will take care of itself.