I've written in the past about tennis' Grand Slam problem (link here). Now I am going to attack another major issue that I have with the professional game: its ridiculously complicated, confusing, and unnecessary ranking system.
At first glance, the way that professional tennis players are ranked may not seem very complicated or confusing. Novak Djokovic has been the #1 ranked player on the men's tour for a good portion of the last three years, and anyone who has followed the game in that time frame can attest to him being the best player in the world. Andy Murray is currently ranked second, and is widely regarded as the biggest threat to Djokovic's reign at the top of the rankings due to his recent Grand Slam wins at Wimbledon and last year's US Open.
To find the real issue with the current ranking system, go back to this time last year. In 2012, Serena Williams was without a doubt the best player in women's tennis, finishing the year by winning the last two majors (Wimbledon and the US Open), both in very convincing fashion. So where was Serena ranked at the end of the year? Yep you guessed it, third. Third??? It took her until after the Australian Open in 2013 to regain the top spot in the rankings. And where did she finish at the first major of the season? She must have won it to jump over two players to get to the top right? Wrong. She lost in the quarterfinals. And the #1 ranked player, Victoria Azarenka, won the tournament, yet less than a month later she lost her top ranking to Serena. Makes perfect sense right?
If you try to figure out how the tennis ranking system works, get ready to have a headache afterwards. A college degree in math is required to figure this system out. I'll try my best to summarize it for you.
I focused on the men's ATP Tour's ranking system, which is a bit different from the women's WTA Tour's system. The main differences are the amount of points given out for each tournament and which tournaments are mandatory for players to compete at. On the men's side, each player is required to play 18 tournaments throughout the season, which include the four Grand Slams (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open), along with eight Masters Series events which are basically a step down from a Grand Slam. There is a ninth Masters Series event which is optional to participate at. The top 30 players are required to also play in at least four "500-level" tournaments (500 refers to the amount of points the winner receives - a Grand Slam win garners 2,000 points while a Masters Series win garners 1,000). Those not in the top 30 have no requirements regarding the rest of their schedule, yet they will only be able to count points from four of the "500-level" tournaments. I'll give you a minute to digest that and take a couple of Excedrin.
So to simplify that a bit, the top men's players must play the four majors and the eight Masters events, with all the points from those events counting towards their ranking. They can then play as many other tournaments as they want (if in the top 30 they must play four "500-level" events); with only the best six results counting towards their ranking. So a player could enter another 15 events, lose in the first round in nine of them, and have all nine of those losses mean nothing to their ranking. Seems like an odd way to get the top players to show up at the lesser-known events (there's other ways to get them to show up that involve their wallets but we'll just skip over that for now).
So obviously there's a problem with only counting certain results and not others, but the main issue I have with this ranking system is the fact that it lasts for 52 weeks, which is different than lasting for an entire year. Let me explain that sentence. When you look at the current rankings (link here), that is the current 52 week ranking for every player. It is not the 2013 rankings for every player. All the tournaments from last August until now are included in the current rankings. If a player had a great last couple of months of 2012, their ranking is inflated and not accurate.
Counting an entire year's worth of tournaments requires players to "defend" points from the previous year. A player who does well at a specific tournament last year must do just as well this year or else they actually lose points in their ranking. For example, Rafael Nadal beat David Ferrer in the finals of the French Open this year, and Ferrer actually went ahead of Nadal in the rankings. Since Nadal had won the event the year before, he was defending his entire 2,000 points and did not gain anything from winning a Grand Slam event. Ferrer improved from making the semifinals in 2012 to making the finals in 2013, gaining 480 points even though he still lost. Those 480 points put him ahead of the player that he lost to. Makes sense right?
In my opinion, the rankings should reward players who are performing at a high level this season, not in the past year. Playing well on hard courts in 2012 should have no effect on your ranking at Wimbledon in 2013. How you are playing in 2013 should ultimately affect your current ranking. If that was the case, Novak Djokovic would not be the top-ranked player on the men's side; Rafael Nadal would be.
Juan Martin Del Potro
Guys outside the Top 20
There doesn't seem to be much difference between the top 20 players' rankings using their 2013 results until you get to #18 Janko Tipsarevic. He had a great August through December of 2012, which adds over 1,500 points to his current ranking. Unless he gets hot on the hard courts, his ranking at the end of this year is going to plummet due to him not being able to defend all of his points from last year. However he shouldn't be rewarded with a top 20 seed at the last major of the season just because he played well last year. That's like giving the Miami Heat 10 wins to start next season because they won the NBA Finals. Once the calendar year starts your ranking should start too.
I tried to find an explanation as to why the rankings are like this, and was unsuccessful. I understand why they are used at the beginning of the season, as there needs to be a way to seed the top players at the Australian Open. You wouldn't be able to use the year-to-date rankings at the first major, since it is held so early in the season and there isn't a mandatory event prior to the first Slam. I have no problem with using last year's rankings for the first couple of months of the year, up until the early Masters Series tournaments. But there is no reason to be using last year's results to determine this year's seeds at the last major of the year. When you look at baseball's standings, you're not looking at the win-loss records for the last 162 games (thank God since the Red Sox would be way out of first place if we were). So why does tennis need to show us who the best player in the last year is?