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Why Do Tennis Rankings Matter?
After 16 years, Australia finally has a world number one tennis player in Ashleigh Barty. She became the first Australian woman to make it to the top since Evonne Goolagong-Cawley did in 1976 and she was the first Australian to do it after Lleyton Hewitt in 2003. Her rise to the top, following a short stint with playing cricket, shows an interesting insight into the numbers behind the sport.
Back in May 2016, when she was still unranked, she tried her skill (and luck) by qualifying for a low-level $50,000 tournament in Southern England. A few matches later, she was ranked 623 with a few points. At the end of that year, she halved her ranking. In March 2017, she was at no. 92 after her maiden WTA title win in Kuala Lumpur. At the end of 2017, she was inside the top 20.
In June 2019, after winning against German Julian Gorges, just two weeks after winning the French Open, she was at the top of the table. ‘You always dream about being number one as a little kid’, said Barty after the match, ‘but, for it to become a reality, it's incredible and not something that was even in my realm – we were aiming for top 10 this year’.
This begs the question: how does the ranking system work and what difference will a win or loss make?
In all sports, a player’s trophy cabinet serves as a measure of their success but in tennis, a high ranking means credibility. Rankings matter mostly because the tennis season is almost never-ending. There are major tournaments and peaks across the year such as the four majors (which includes the Australian Open) but there isn’t a definite finish line to it.
Tennis players must constantly ‘defend their points’ when they play at a tournament but a year-end ranking does hold the most weight. As for the season, it ended officially with the ATP Finals in November for the men’s category and the WTA Finals in October for the women’s category. Rafael Nadal, the current men’s no.1, has earned the title for a fifth time.
Being number one can both be a blessing and a curse so to say. If you haven’t also won a major, it can be the catalyst for the best-player-yet-to-win-a-major narrative. As proof of this, just-retired Dane Caroline Wozniacki didn't win a grand slam until the 2018 Australian Open, almost eight years after she first reached the top.
A player’s ranking is determined by the points they’ve collected over the previous 12 months. Every week, the rankings are recalculated, released, and published every Monday. It’s not set in stone hence it being called a rolling measurement and being referred to as ‘defending one’s points’. The more important the tournament is - and how far a player is able to progress into it - the more points the player accumulates. 52 weeks after first being awarded, they are dropped.
According to a published article, it says that the rankings formula in men’s tennis is calculated by ‘his total points from the majors – the Australian, French and US opens and Wimbledon – plus eight mandatory Masters 1000 tournaments, and his best six results from all ATP Tour 500, ATP Tour 250, Challenger Tour and Futures tournaments’. A similar system is adopted for the women’s category.
Rankings are a universal measurement of a player’s spot whereas seedings are tournament-specific. According to contrary belief, seedings to matter. At the majors, a seeded player can’t meet another seed any earlier than the third round. That's why you hear of a top player on the comeback trail referred to as a ‘dangerous floater’ or an ‘unseeded threat’ who other players will want to avoid too early in a tournament.
Words: Carlos Corpus