Consider this scenario:
You and I are professional tennis players. (You like this scenario already, don’t you?) I’m the #1 ranked player in the world. You’re #2.
We both enter the Australian Open. You lose in round 2. I do better, eventually losing in the quarterfinals.
The tournament ends, and you become world #1.
Seems impossible, but it can happen, thanks to the sport’s quirky point system.
Professional tennis players earn their rankings by accumulating points every week on a rolling basis. Each tournament is worth a certain number of points, and the deeper a player goes within that tournament, the more points she’ll win.
Those points remain part of the player’s cumulative total for 52 weeks. At the end of that time, those old points fall away, to be replaced with the new points earned that week.
Back to our example. Let’s say last year I won the Australian Open, earning 2,000 points. You lost in the quarters, earning 360 points.
This year, by making it to the quarters, I earned 360 points. But at the same time, I’m losing the 2,000 points from a year ago. Even though I’ve made a good showing by making it to the quarters, I’ve lost a net 1,640 points.
You, on the other hand, earned 45 points this year by making it to the second round. Your 360 points from last year are deducted from your point total. You’ve lost a net 315 points.
You and I both fared worse this year than last, but I had a lot more to lose. I lost 1,325 more points than you did.
If the gap between our rankings prior to the Australian Open was less than 1,325 points, you take over the top spot.
Whew, that’s a lot of math for a Monday.
This is what the tennis commentators mean when they talk about having points to defend. If you did well in a tournament one year, there’s a lot of pressure to do at least as well the following year. Anything short of that, your ranking point total will fall.
That’s the position Simona Halep finds herself in as last year’s Australian Open runner-up and current #1. She’ll lose the expiring 1,200 points she earned last year.
Meanwhile, other players are in striking distance point-wise. Two (fifth-ranked Sloane Stephens and sixth-ranked Petra Kvitova) lost in the first round last year and have only 10 points to defend. In all, ten women have the potential to take over the #1 ranking from Halep at the end of this tournament.
One player who doesn’t have a shot at the #1 ranking, though, is Serena Williams, who many people are picking to win the tournament. So let’s leave off with the nerdy number-crunching and take a poll!