The Ranking System, and a Poll

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!


5 thoughts on “The Ranking System, and a Poll

Add yours

  1. You teach us about the coolest things — and make it so easy to understand. Thanks.

    I don’t know if Serena is really poised to win, but I always love rooting for her. Even though her recent behavior left a little to be desired in sportsmanship, I still think she and her sister have been game-changers (sorry, couldn’t resist).

    I know it’s not tennis…but speaking of game changers, did you see that gymnast from UCLA, Katelyn Ohashi, who blew away the floor routine this weekend? She reminds me of Venus and Serena — totally muscular and embracing her own style while completely changing our view of how the sport is played.

  2. I DID see that floor routine–amazing! What most impressed me was the joy and freedom she performed with. It was like she was reminding all her teammates and competitors that THIS is why we’re in this sport. It’s supposed to be fun! And that actually is related to tennis and all sports. The more uptight you are about the score, the less freedom you’ll be able to play with–and the worse you’ll play. (I can turn any topic into tennis. It’s my new parlor game: Six Degrees of Tennis.)

    Meanwhile, I’m not feeling as confident in Serena winning this tournament as I normally am. It seems foolish to put my money against her, but I think some of her aura of invincibility has faded. Other players have a bit more confidence when they take the court now. And I think she hasn’t played since the US Open, other than a couple of Hopman Cup matches a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure this is the tournament where she ties Margaret Court’s record. But I have no doubt that she will at some point.

  3. Wow, I never would have suspected that the rankings worked that way and that pro tennis players have SO MUCH to lose by Not successfully defending a title that they won the year before. Do players like this system and think it is fair? Does anyone know?

    1. I don’t know if the players like the system in general. I do think it’s fair–your ranking points reflect how you’ve performed over the course of a year.

      I remember a few years ago Nadal was advocating for a two-year rolling system. Being able to keep your points for two years instead of one would lead to more stability in the rankings, giving some protection to established players and also to players who are injured. (There are already some protections built into the current system for time missed due to injuries and pregnancy. I don’t know exactly how that works.) But the two-year system would also slow down the ascent of younger players, as well as the ascent of players who have fully recovered from their injuries. So that idea wasn’t adopted.

Let me know what you think!

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