Thursday, October 16, 2008

THE FLEAS COME WITH THE DOG

Well, with egg on my face, I must admit, I got it all wrong with regards to the ATP Rankings, and the ATP Race. Basically, I jumped the gun on my assumptions about the reasons for the differences, and have come to the conclusion that, in the words of Congressman Dick Dodge from The Distinguished Gentleman:

“Son, the system ain’t perfect; but the fleas come with the dog.”

First, to explain the differences between the two points systems, and why each, in some form, is necessary to maintain legitimacy and sense in professional tennis.

THE SYSTEMS

As I write, the #1 ranked player in the world is Rafael Nadal. This ranking is based on the system of the official name “Entry Ranking System”. To be honest, I still haven’t quite figured out what is the meaning behind this name, but basically it is a rolling 52-week backward facing accumulation of points, giving a 1-year snapshot of the relative ranking of all professionals. It is used to determine which players are eligible to enter the various events, and the seeding thereof.
The points are allocated across 7 categories of tournaments:

[1] Grand Slams
[2] The Masters Cup (Year End Championships)
[3] Masters Series
[4] International Gold
[5] International
[6] Challenger
[7] Futures

The ATP Race serves two purposes: first, it determines the year end #1 player for the season, and it also determines which eight players will play in the TMC. The genesis of the ATP Race was the perception that the #1 ranking was not intuitive, and observers not intimately involved in tennis had a hard time keeping track of who was the #1 player.

The categories of the ATP Race differ from the ranking points in that only the first 4 categories of the ranking points transfers to the ATP Race – challenger and futures events are excluded from the ATP race. The points allocated to the yearly points is also smaller by a factor of 5, but proportionally the same. The only remaining difference between the two is that the Olympics are not included in the ATP race points, and as such have no bearing on the year end #1 ranking, or the TMC invitations.

The structure of the ATP Race is that all players begin the year with 0 points, and begin to accrue points in various categories of competitions throughout the year. This differs from the entry rankings in that players maintain points accrued from the previous year, into the current year. The players earn points at the grand slams, all the masters series events, and the best five results from the two international series in both systems.

If the ATP had their druthers, they would do away with the entry ranking system, since it is not a palatably marketable tool to promote the casual fan tracking the progress of the season, but the problem comes with the seeding at tournaments. If there were not carryover from the previous year, players could only be seeded either by the tournaments themselves, in a haphazard way, or based on the ATP race points, and players who either manage their schedule or suffer injuries would suffer unjustly.

For example, Mikael Youzhny, and Michael Llorda would have been the top two seeds at the Australian Open, while Federer and Nadal, could possibly have wound up facing each other in the earlier rounds, and nobody wants to see that. Furthermore, if for some reason one of them were injured early in the season, they would see their ranking suffer terribly, and have a very big hill to climb for the remainder of the year.

TWO SYSTEMS, ONE #1 (FOR THE MOST PART)

For these reasons the dual system exists, and on the face of it, makes perfectly good sense. That there are two points systems in play at any one time would seem to make it very confusing for anyone outside of tennis trying to follow who’s doing what during the season, and would over emphasize the value/quality of a hot player, versus one who consistently demonstrates superiority over the field over the course of a year.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the points go back a year in terms of the confusion, and because in Olympic years there are proportionately more points available for seeding than there is to determine the year end #1, it makes for the possibility that depending on the results, a player could wind up with a higher ranking, but still lose out on the year end #1. It would require an extremely coincidental and convoluted series of results to expose such an oddity, and fortunately, because tennis is sport that tends to be dominated by a consistent small group of players, particularly the top 5, we haven’t seen a lot of peculiarities due to this asynchronous allocation of points.

IDEALLY....

Ideally there should be one system that everyone refers to, and the entry ranking system could be renamed the entry seeding system, to alleviate confusion. After all, David Nalbandian is ranked #7, but given that he was the highest ranked player at Stockholm, he was the #1 seed, but nobody is going to confuse him for the best player in the world. Even the casual observer could look at the ATP race and see that he must be seeded so high because nobody else with a better ranking (or in the new system, seeding) is playing in the tournament.

It turns out that there is really no problem at all with the entry ranking system per se – the real problem is with the #1 ranking. It has taken on a significance all its own, independent of the results in the slams, some kind of badge of honor that (for them most part) only the best players in the history of the game have been able to attain. Each time we get a Marcelo Rios or a Jelena Jankovic reaching #1 in the world without winning a grand slam, it feels wrong because we know the prestige in the game is related to results in the crowned jewels of the game, and as such, the #1 ranking is an artificial accolade, created by the ATP many years ago in order to standardize seedings and create a holy grail towards which their sponsored/controlled events are geared, giving them more gravitas than they would otherwise have on their own.

THE SOLUTION

Maybe we should do away with the #1 ranking. It would take a genius to figure out that the #1 ranked player in the world can’t really be determined until the end of the year, and leading the ATP Race, wouldn’t hold much value until the TMC came around. But there’s something about being able to rank players from one event to the next, and have a ranking commensurate to the marketing of an event that makes tennis special. In college sports, there is an excitement around #1 versus #2 that tennis benefits from because of its ranking, but that system is fraught with problems as well.

I don’t know if it would matter to anyone if the abstract #1 ranking disappeared. It’s only been around for 35 years and would, in history, be treated as an aberration owing to the evolving structure of professional tennis that was eventually rectified by the consolidation of power in the ATP and the introduction of the ATP Race as a proper vehicle to determine who the best player in tennis was in a year.

It would also eliminate, or at least mitigate the embarrassing historical asterisk of the Marcelo Rios’ of tennis.
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