THE ECCENTRICITY OF TENNIS RANKINGS


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Tennis truly is the sport that never sleeps. At just about any given point in time, there is a professional tennis match being played somewhere on the planet.


Take just this week, for example, there are pro tournaments taking place in 12 different countries, spanning five of the Earth’s six inhabited continents. And yet, the average tennis fan will likely only be aware of one; the 1000 event in Miami.


Fans want to see the best players competing against each other and the big events provide such entertainment. But the difference in standard between top 100 and top 1000 players is much closer than most would think.


On a given day, many players ranked anywhere in the top 1000 could beat a top 100 player. Tennis rankings operate in such an obscure manner that they can often be an inaccurate depiction of a player’s true level. A player’s ranking reflects a host of factors other than their current standard, such as the contrasting draws from one player to another or the opportunity to contest major events.


Firstly, the draw. It’s a fascinating part of tennis. At every event, a player is set out a brand-new obstacle course. You could draw a high seed, a qualifier, a red-hot wildcard Nick Kyrgios. It’s completely up in the air. And yet, while players have no say in their opponent whatsoever (other than seeds not playing each other first up), it is crucial and, in my opinion, an extremely undervalued part of any event.


In a given week, a top 50 ranked player in the world could draw Rafael Nadal or Iga Swiatek in the 1st round. And no matter how many games or even sets they win, how many breakpoints they conjure, or how many balls they force their opponent to play, a loss is a loss. And under the points system of both the ATP and WTA, they will earn few to no points.


In hindsight, the same player could have easily entered a lower-level tournament (Challenger or ITF event) in the same week and earned a much larger number of points.


And yet no player would ever consider this approach because players choose to enter events based on opportunity rather than probability. Based on the chance of earning a much greater points tally if they progress, rather than the likely and realistic amount they will obtain.


And both the ATP and WTA tours reward this approach. Points rise at an exponential rate as players progress in a tournament. At Grand Slams, a singles player receives an extra 35 points for winning a 1st round match, but an extra 800 points for winning a Final.


So, understandably, players will continue to contest the events where they can earn the most possible points. But in reality, half of the draw crashes out in their opening match and will be rewarded with the points equivalent of reaching an ITF Quarter Final.


In Miami this week, a player receives 0 points for bowing out in the 1st round and just 10 points for falling in the 2nd. Regardless of who you play, and how well you play, every single 2nd round loser will earn the same number of points. If one player goes down to Nadal in three tight sets and another is double ‘bagelled’ by a wildcard, they will receive the same number of points.


So for unseeded players, the draw, despite being completely random, can often be the most important battle of their entire week.


The second major factor in rankings calculations is opportunity. Not necessarily the opportunity to access the most available points, but simply the chance to compete. For a host of reasons - geographic, physical, mental, age, personality – some players are afforded more chances than others.


First of all, a player’s country of origin has a massive influence on progressing their career. I noticed first-hand at this year’s Australian Open just how privileged local players are to have a Grand Slam in their own backyard.


Players that would never have the chance to compete in the qualifying or main draw of a major suddenly flourished when given wildcard opportunities, with many young Australians ranked outside the top 1000 going toe-to-toe with players on the cusp of the top 100.


Yet, outside of the Australian Summer, this opportunity fades and lower-ranked players will return back to the ITF tour, slugging it out to earn points.


But at least from an Australian point of view, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Players have been given a glimpse of what it takes, and in many instances, learnt they are not far off at all. It brings internal motivation, as well as external publicity, and is momentous for one’s career.


But for players without a home major, the tunnel is pitch dark. And the road is a whole lot longer.


Additionally, physical and mental struggles are human nature and affect all players, especially given the gruelling style of the tennis tour.


Players who’ve had past success are often able to make comebacks from injury, as their returns are boosted by wildcards and protected entries.


But for those who have never been at the top, injuries can be detrimental. The road back from outside the top 1000 to being at Grand Slam level is incredibly difficult, especially without help from the tours.


Ultimately, the rankings are far from accurate, but in saying that, there may not be a better solution.


If an ITF level match was played as an Australian Open 1st Round clash at Melbourne Park, very few would notice a difference.


So, it is time for tennis fans to embrace the lower levels of the tour, to grow the sport from the ground up.