Wednesday, February 11, 2009

NEW MONEY, SAME OLD PROBLEM

Recently Jelena Jankovic hit back at stinging criticism from Roger Federer on the state of rankings at the WTA. In essence, he repeated what most have said about Jankovic’s stint as the #1 player in the world – that it made no sense.

Jankovic was none too pleased, but a quick look at the distribution of points across categories of tournaments on both the WTA and the ATP tours demonstrates some very strange possibilities. Federer would do well to consider this the next time he chats with the ATP President, as he himself could wind up in the unenviable position of looking a bit silly for his ranking as well.

There are nine 1000 Series events, excluding the year end championships, on the ATP Tour, each of which is worth 1000 points to the winner. Each grand slam is worth 2000 points – 9000 vs. 8000 points – which means that a player could win the calendar slam, another could win every 1000 series event, and the winner of the calendar slam would have to find another 1000 points (all other things equal) to obtain the #1 ranking?

Huh?

That’s right – a guy could win 28 grand slam matches in a row, and still come out the wrong end of the rankings. What a nightmare that would be. Fair enough, the 1000 series sweep is an altogether less likely scenario than the calendar slam, but it reveals that the rankings are weighted towards the events that the ATP controls, and as such if the stars so aligned, we could see such a ridiculous scenario played out. You could argue that a player who wins all 9 MS events deserves to be #1, but would you feel that way if another player won the calendar slam?

Well, that's an unlikely scenario, so let's take it piece by piece – imagine a player wins two slams – 4000 points looks pretty good – but to overcome that (again all other things equal) you'd just have to win 3 1000 series titles (one more than did Djokovic and Murray last year) and two 500 series events (say Rotterdam and Indianapolis) and you'd have the exact same number of points as a winner of Wimbledon AND the US Open in the same year.

Now which record would you want for your favorite player?

You see, the tennis gods look favorably on the calendar slam – even half of it. Why? Because there’s continuity of purpose in the slams, and as such, you can gauge a player against the greats of the game a hell of a lot easier with slam results than a mish-mash of tournaments, the collection of which seems to change with the each year. The top 8 players don’t even play the same number of matches as the rest of the field in 1000 or 500 series tournaments, and although you’ve got more time to rest in between matches at slams, anyone who’s played a 5 set match will tell you that it’s always harder to come back from that than your average 3-setter.

Consider this other possibility – a player winning four 500 series tournaments (say, Rotterdam, Doha, Indianapolis and Barcelona) is adjudged the equal of the champion at Wimbledon – in ATP points that is. Any player with his head not on backwards would choose Wimbledon over the other events, so why don't the rankings reflect that.

Now let’s look at the women’s side.

The Wimbledon champion on the women’s side would earn fewer points than another player winning 3 non-mandatory Premier 5 tournaments (2000 vs. 2400 points) say, Beijing, Stuttgart and Moscow. So you don’t even have to win any tournaments where all the best players are required to participate, and you can earn the same number of points as one of the Williams sisters.

This is probably the area where Federer has a good point. It is altogether unlikely that a player who is capable of winning more than three 1000 series shields in a season doesn’t win at least on slam, but win 2 of them, and you’re on par with the US Open champion. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it has only happened because the slam winners tend to win 1000 series tournaments along the way. That’s a convenient coincidence, but a glaring anomaly in the making nonetheless.

Ivan Lendl was ranked #1 in 1983; he only reached two grand slam finals but racked up enough victories in tennis hotbeds like North Conway, New Hampshire and Naples, Italy to hold the top spot come Christmas. In his favor that year was that 4 different men won grand slams (Noah at the French, McEnroe at Wimbledon, Connors at the US Open and Wilander at the Australian). So the argument then with Lendl was the same as it is today with Jankovic; how can a guy/gal who can’t win a slam to save his/her life, be considered the best player in the world? It didn’t help that in 1983 he lost 4 out of 5 to McEnroe, 2 out of 4 to Wilander, 2 out of 4 to Connors and his one and only match to Noah - a collective 5 of 14 against the slam champions.

Fast forward, nip and tuck to the women's side, and we have our example in Jelena (Lendlova) Jankovic – last year she won Rome, Beijing, Stuttgart and Moscow (sound familiar?), had consistently (barely) above average results everywhere else, and so was ranked #1. But nobody – not even Jankovic, I suspect – sincerely believed she was the best player in the world – maybe the most consistent, but certainly not the best. Well, thankfully Serena has put that question off for a bit.

Jankovic won more points for any 3 of those tournaments than Sharapova did for winning in Melbourne, Ivanovic did for conquering Paris, Venus did for winning her fifth at the All England Club, and Serena Williams did for exorcising her small town blues at Flushing. Jankovic lost her only match to "I'm So Pretty", went 1-2 against Verdasco's ex-girlfriend, split 1-1 with the Fly Trap, and 1-2 to Serena, for a whopping 3 for 8 against the slam winners - ironically she lost in 3 of the 4 slams to the eventual champion, but still topped the table at the end of the season - this after losing in the semi-final of the year end championships.

The point distributions do not represent the historical or even current significance of tournaments. In order to encourage high profile players to play events that are essentially money-makers for the tour, they have to put a point value on them that will draw marquee players. But as soon as they do this the advantage goes to those who play more often, but not necessarily better, and that’s when the rankings begin to make little to no sense at all. So why do they want to draw players to these events? – I told you, that’s where the money is; new sponsors, new venues and a whole lot of NEW MONEY (in Beijing and Moscow, anyway).

The only solution is for the ATP and the WTA to admit that tradition counts in tennis and the only thing that everyone cares about equally is the slams. They could eat into the gravitas of the slams by keeping a more consistent year to year schedule and attaching some historical value to smaller events, but as long as money changes hands globally, new venues have cash to burn, and players have entourages to support, there’s little hope for a calendar or ranking system that make sense on both sides of the aisle any time soon.

Well, at least Jelena can always take Roger for a ride in the Porsche she won in Stuttgart – you can’t drive a ranking anyway.
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