DOHA - After months of debate about who is more deserving of the No. 1 ranking, Serena Williams and Dinara Safina can settle the issue on the court at the WTA's season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships.
Safina recaptured the top ranking from Williams on Monday, but the margin is so slim that the player who performs better at this week's tournament in Doha will end the year as No. 1 - adding an extra element of prestige to the lucrative event.
Safina has held the top spot for 26 weeks this year but the Russian has faced persistent questions about whether she's worthy of the title without having won a Grand Slam tournament. Williams won her 11th major title at this year's Wimbledon, after also taking the Australian Open.
"It would be awesome," Williams said Monday about the prospect of ending 2009 atop the rankings. "It would be really cool. But I would have to win."
Actually, she only has to win one more match than Safina. If both players have equal results, Safina keeps the top ranking.
The eight-player tournament starts Tuesday with a round-robin group stage, with the top two players from each group advancing to the semifinals. Williams and Safina are in different groups, meaning they will not get to face each other until a potential match in the knockout rounds.
Williams was drawn with her sister Venus and Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva. The other group consists of Safina, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic of Serbia, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and Danish teenager Caroline Wozniacki.
"I'm in a tough part of the section of the draw," Serena Williams said. "So we'll see what happens."
Safina, meanwhile, is tired of defending her credentials as the top-ranked player in the world.
"I don't want to think about this right now," she said. "Last year I was winning every tournament and they (were) asking me why I'm not No. 1. This year I became No. 1, there is no Grand Slam. It is every day going to be something."
Safina has 7,731 points in the latest rankings to lead Serena Williams by 155 points. Each win in the round-robin stage here is worth 160 points.
The other six players also have plenty to play for.
The total prize pool is US$4.55 million and the champion receives $1.55 million if she completes the tournament undefeated - with $100,000 knocked off for each loss in the round-robin stage.
Venus Williams is the defending champion, while Azarenka and Wozniacki are competing in the event for the first time.
Wozniacki reached her first Grand Slam final this year before losing to Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open and has climbed to No. 4 in the rankings. Despite having won three tour titles this year, the 19-year-old said she still has a lot to learn from her opposition this week.
"It's a really difficult tournament to win, and it gives me more experience," she said. "I think it's just a great thing to be a part of this team of the eight best women tennis players in the world. I'm sure that this will help me in the further tournaments."
Dementieva is making her ninth appearance - the most of any player here - but has yet to make it past the semifinals. Safina is playing the event for the second time, but lost all three of her group matches last year.
The Williams sisters - who are also playing in the doubles tournament - are the only previous champions, and Venus said the money isn't the only reason she's looking for a repeat.
"Last year was definitely a monumental moment," she said. "I never thought it would feel so good to actually win the year-end championships. It was definitely a surprised feeling at the end. I would love to feel that again."