The oddity of the ATP Ranking system

By Thaddeus McCarthy

I’m sure that all of us astute fans out there know about the oddity that the ATP ranking system sometimes creates. This is admittedly more common in the women’s game, as it is often that we find someone at the top, who have never won a Slam title. Does anyone recall Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniaki, or Jelena Jankovic from the past decade? All of them failed to win a Slam title and yet attained the number 1 rank. With the men this is not so common, Marcelo Rios being the only one, having attained numero uno for a few weeks in 1998. In this article I will discuss this oddity and how it has presented itself over the years.

As all of us astute fans out there are undoubtedly knowledgeable of, the rankings are based on whatever happened in the past years 19 tournaments (the Slams, Masters tournaments, ATP Tour finals, and a make-up of 500 and 250 events, Olympics and Davis Cups). Like for example, as Rafael Nadal won the French Open last year, if he doesn’t win it this year or merely reaches the final he will lose ranking points. Because Novak won Monte Carlo last year, he lost points this year, as only made the semi-finals. The most ranking points are made from the Grand Slams (2000 for the winner, 1200 for a finalist, down to 10 for making the first round) and Masters events (1000 for winner, 600 for finalist, and 360 for semi-finalist).

Bjorn Borg is perhaps the best example for why the ATP rankings are not always the truest measure of the number 1. As between 1976-1980 he was undoubtedly the best player in the world. But because he did not play many tournaments he didn’t spend all that much time at number 1. Instead, Jimmy Connors could extend his run at the top because Borg didn’t halt his run at one of the many lesser tournaments. Connors extended his run to 260 weeks at the top in the end. But many would doubt that he was ever (apart from 1974 when he went 99-4) the best player in the world.

Marcelo Rios was a funny character; apparently he was notorious for never showing respect for the other players. He was therefore likely a candidate for the most controversial number 1 in tennis history. The only Slam final that he reached was the Australian Open at the beginning of 98. It was later in the year that he attained the rank, having a legendary tussle with Pete Sampras for the year-end slot in the end, which he lost. But how did he attain the rank even for a time? He got the number 1 rank after winning in Key Biscayne, beating Ivanisevic, Agassi and Henman on the way. He held at that time for four weeks before losing after being unable to defend Monte Carlo. He gained it later in the year for two weeks, and overall won 7 titles including a Masters overall in 98. Basically he had an advantage over Sampras as he (Sampras) had had a brilliant 97, and so found it harder to defend the points he had gained the previous annum.

The women that I mentioned earlier like Safina, Jankovic and Wozniaki were slightly different cases than Rios, and there wasn’t as much controversy surrounding them and their rise to number 1. So the next case I will discuss is Jimmy Connors in 1975, which was surprising because he won no Slams that year. Why did Connors get the year-end number 1 then? Basically Connors was more able to reach finals and semi-finals. The fact he had so many points to defend from the previous year didn’t matter because he had so far superior in 74, that he didn’t need to perform equally as well again to attain the number 1 rank again.

It could also be argued that the ranking system is right, and that the fact there is such an opinion that certain players shouldn’t be in the rank is more reflective of the public placing too much value on the Grand Slams. Connors in 1977 is a case in point, as he was still winning many tournaments and did reach the finals of

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three Slams. So although he wasn’t winning, he was still playing too a high level. Ivan Lendl was criticised in 1982 for making the rank without winning any Slams. But it probably was forgotten at time that he won many tournaments that year and had an overall 92% winning percentage.

So although the ranking system isn’t perfect, and people often find reasons to criticise it, there are good things about it. By its very nature, not all the emphasis is on the Grand Slams. It places good emphasis on the different tournaments, and if the ATP governing body decides to change the emphasis on the Grand Slams or on the Masters tournaments, then it is relatively easy to work out how it would affect the players ranks. Of course, this process wouldn’t be all that easy as any process in the political arena (like that with the ATP) is always fraught with difficulty. The one thing that I would suggest that the ATP should change is the ruling it made to the players in 1982 that they have to play a certain number of tournaments per year. It was for this reason that Bjorn Borg left the sport then, and the tennis world thus lost one of its greatest competitors. Tennis players, like the rest of us, have things called lives (outside their profession).

Running along those lines I will finish up here by saying congratulations to Roger Federer for the birth of his second pair of twins. What are the chances of that you may ask? 1: 170,000!

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