“Just because you’re not interested in politics doesn’t mean politics doesn’t have an interest in you,” Pericles said.
This timeless aphorism applies to tennis politics. Ranking systems may not interest every tournament player. But they should because every player receives a ranking and every player’s ranking should reflect his actual tournament record. Put differently, no one should lose in the rankings what he’s won fair and square on the courts.
What are the criteria required for an accurate—and thus fair—ranking system?
And what’s wrong with the much-criticized USTA’s senior men’s ranking system that counts only 4 tournaments for a national ranking?
The worst flaw in the current senior national rankings is that not all tournament results count. Because the top 100 men’s singles players in the 55-60-65-70-75 divisions averaged 6.74 tournaments (from Jan. 1 to Dec. 15, 2014) and 6.38 tournaments (from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2015 *), an average of
2.74 tournaments — 41% — were not counted in the “Best 4” rankings for 2014; and an average of
2.38 tournaments — 37% — were not counted in the “Best 4” rankings for 2015.
The specific 2014 and 2015 tournament participation breakdown averages are as follows:
The first sine qua non of all tennis ranking systems historically is that all tournament results must count. This principle applies to all regular-season and playoff results in the NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA—both for team standings and individual player statistics.
Anything less would sully and invalidate the standings and individual statistics of these major sports leagues. You can imagine the outrage by players and fans if the NBA decided to throw out the Golden State Warriors’ 20 worst games or Lebron James’ 20 least productive games.
Tennis’ time-tested tradition of counting all tournament results ended when the ATP adopted a “Best-14” ranking system in 1990. Its tenuous rationale was that this innovation would induce or bribe unwilling players to play at least 14 tournaments, only if the ATP threw out the results of their worst tournaments.
The “Best 14” succeeded in increasing the average number of singles tournaments played—but it also decreased Davis Cup and doubles participation, while not decreasing participation in exhibition events. Worst of all, it ruined the ATP ranking system by producing inaccurate rankings.
Today’s ATP and WTA rankings systems are a hybrid in the sense that the four Grand Slam events and nine Masters 1000 events and four Premier Mandatory events are “mandatory” and thus automatically count in the rankings. The rest of the 17 ATP and 16 WTA tournaments that count come from players’ best non-mandatory tournaments. For many pro players, 1 to 10 of their tournaments still do not count in the rankings. A ranking system must count all results to produce accurate, and thus fair, rankings.
The second sine qua non of a valid ranking system is that it must use a point average that divides the total number of points earned by the total number of tournaments played. A point average system uses a “minimum divisor.” The fairest “minimum divisor” for 45 to 80 Super Senior age divisions is 6. Why?
First, a national ranking is always extremely important, but especially so in a country with 17 sections that vary greatly in strength and depth. At least 6 tournaments provide sufficient tournaments to measure accurately everyone’s record.
Second, 6 tournaments is a reasonable minimum number, considering that only one national tournament is required to be eligible for a national ranking.
The total number of tournaments that count in current “Best-whatever-number” ranking systems is analogous to the number used as the “minimum divisor” in point-average ranking systems. The “minimum divisor” simply means that if, for example, you play fewer than 6 tournaments, your point total is still divided by 6 to determine your point average. If you play more than 6 tournaments, your point total is divided by the exact number of tournaments you play to determine your point average.
Have Super Senior players cared about the “Best 4” rule? Based on the aforementioned evidence, they have not cared. If they truly had great financial difficulty playing 4 tournaments, as the USTA claims, why did only 11% of the 500 ranked players in 2014 and again only 11% of the 481 ranked players in 2015 play in exactly 4 tournaments? And, even among that 11%, were there reasons other than financial hardship why they did not play 5 or more, and perhaps many more, tournaments? The only way we can know for sure is to ask that 11%.
However, we do know that Super Senior players decide to enter a given tournament—or not enter a given tournament—as well as enter a given number of tournaments during a given year for various reasons.
These reasons, besides the expenses involved, include, but are not limited to:
Once again, no player should wrongfully lose in a flawed ranking system what he rightfully won in tournament competition.
Therefore, to produce fair rankings and to increase player participation, in 2019 the USTA should increase to 5 the number of tournaments that count. At the end of 2019, in consultation with our National Senior Men’s Tennis Association, the USTA should evaluate both the tournament participation numbers and the players’ conclusions, and then determine how many tournaments should count in 2020. As recommended earlier, 6 tournaments is the ideal minimum number.
The third criterion is the awarding of points based on how many rounds a player or doubles team advances in a tournament. This formula started in 1973 when the ATP created the sport’s first computer rankings. Before that, rankings were determined by international, national, and sectional committees which based their rankings substantially, but not totally, on the magnitude and number of a player’s wins and losses. Specifically, that meant terrific wins (viz., wins over players with much better records) greatly helped one’s ranking, while good wins (viz., wins over players with somewhat better records) somewhat helped one’s ranking. Conversely, terrible losses (viz., losses to players with much worse records) greatly hurt one’s ranking, while bad losses (viz., losses to players with somewhat worse records) somewhat hurt one’s ranking. How many rounds one advanced, therefore, carried much less weight.
In retrospect, the ranking system used for our sport’s first 100 years made eminent sense. Why? Because unlike NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL teams which play nearly equal schedules, tennis players often do not, and sometimes the inequality is great. For example, Senior Player A can win a tournament in Portland, Maine, by beating opponents ranked No. 10, No. 20, and No. 30 in New England and earn 100 ranking points. During the same week, Senior Player B can win a tournament of the same ranking value in Los Angeles by beating superior players ranked No. 1, No. 5, No. 10 and No. 15 in Southern California, a much stronger and deeper section, and also earn 100 ranking points. Is that fair? Of course not. Therefore, not taking into account the quality of one’s opponent is the yet another serious flaw in the current USTA ranking system.
This injustice can be counteracted to a modest extent by awarding “bonus points”—as the ATP once did—based on the quality of the opponent. For example, at Category I tournaments, a win over the No. 1-ranked player would merit 100 points, and a win over the No. 2 player 99 points, all the way down to 1 point for a win over the No. 100-ranked player. At Category II tournaments, the bonus points would be half of that for Category I tournaments.
The fourth criterion is the importance and prestige of the tournament. Here the four national championships—clay, hard, grass, and indoors—are rightly rewarded with the most ranking points, 1,000 for the winner. Category II tournaments award 400 points to the winner. This criterion is justified, and the current point distribution is generally fair, both in terms of tournaments of differing importance and in terms of the round-by-round distribution.
Finally, the USTA will only diminish its flawed ranking system even more if it adopts two major features of the Universal Tennis Rankings (UTR). The first feature is “games won.” Prior to the UTR, no ranking system in history factored in the amount of games a player won in matches. Does it matter whether Player A decisively beats Player B 6-2, 6-2 or barely prevails 6-4, 4-6, 6-4? Not at all, because a win is a win and a loss is a loss. The same holds true in basketball, soccer, baseball, football, hockey, and the vast majority of head-to-head team and individual sports. UTR wrongly rewards players for close, competitive losses.
The second feature is “recent history.” UTR defines this criterion as a player’s last 30 matches in the past 12 months. The apparent goal is to indicate a player’s current form based on, in some cases, relatively recent results.
Using only the last 30 matches, however, presents several problems. A light playing schedule—due to injury, illness, or pregnancy—would mean those 30 matches, could easily be played in a two-year or even a three-year period. That would preclude any true measurement of how well a player is performing right now.
Even if the 30 matches take place during 12 or only 6 months, several variables can make a player’s results fluctuate. A key variable is the court surface. For example, from 2012 to 2017, Nadal won four French Open titles and eight Masters 1000 titles on clay. But once the European clay court circuit ended in early June, he floundered on grass, never even reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Personal problems, injuries, and illnesses can also make one’s results change suddenly and markedly. When recovered, these rejuvenated players can dramatically regain their form, as Federer showed when he captured the 2017 Australian Open after a six-month layoff.
For a comprehensive analysis of UTR, go to http://www.sportstarlive.com/columns/vantagepoint-paul-fein/rating-the-universal-tennis-ratings/article23363626.ece.
Just as we get the government we deserve, we get the ranking system we deserve. So get knowledgeable. Then get involved. Our NSMTA can help reform the USTA ranking system with your expertise and effort. We have the power to turn things around if we choose to do so.
is a longtime tennis writer whose articles have been published in 25 countries. He's authored three tennis books, including Tennis Confidential, and received more than 40 writing awards, including Tennis Week magazine’s International Tennis Writer of the Year in 1991. As a super senior, he ranked No. 1 in singles in the New England 65 and 70 divisions for five years. He is honored to contribute to the National Senior Men's Tennis Association as a blogger.