How did Alexander Zverev miss the last seven months of the season last year and still receive a seeding at the 2023 Australian Open?
The answer is, he used his protected ranking.
Per the ATP and WTA rules, a player can request a protected ranking when “they are physically injured and do not compete in any tennis event for a minimum period of six months”. Depending on the length of a player’s injury, they may use their protected ranking for up to 9 or 12 tournaments.
While a protected ranking rule seems fair on the surface, it has far reaching consequences. Although no one wants to see players out with injuries, questions arise on how much a player should be protected. At the 2023 Australian Open, several players missed out on receiving direct entry into the main draw due to players using their protected rankings on their return from injuries.
Players ranked outside the top 100 typically play in the qualifying rounds of tournaments on the ATP tour. However, depending on their ranking, players will enter tournaments on the ATP Challenger or ITF Tours, with the aim of climbing the rankings to gain automatic entry into Grand Slams.
It can be disheartening for these players to learn that they missed out on the main draw of a Grand Slam because a player who had not returned for six months and was ranked in the top 100 is returning from injury.
Andy Murray has been a beneficiary of the protected ranking system multiple times throughout his career. It is worth considering how Murray would have fared if he had to return through the Challenger tour and grind out results in front of few spectators.
With the threshold to receive a protected ranking being an injury that keeps a player out for six months, we have seen the rule be exploited. In January, Gael Monfils announced he would not be participating in the Australian Open to ensure he was able to receive the full benefits of a protected ranking as he had not yet been out for six months.
Although a protected ranking allows a player to return to where they were before their injury, it certainly has a ripple effect on players hovering around the cut off for tournaments. The difference in prize money from losing in the third round of qualifying for a Grand Slam to losing in the first round of a Grand Slam is substantial.
It is time for the four Grand Slams, the ATP and WTA to collaborate and find a way to mitigate the impact of players using their protected rankings has on their peers?