Women’s tennis rankings don’t add up

By Online Editorial

Dinara Safina

Dinara Safina and Serena Williams have fought on and off the court over the number one ranking all season – a battle that will finally be resolved at next week’s season-ending WTA Tour Championships.

But whoever ends the year as women’s world number one, the real focus should be on a change in the rankings system itself.

It is the issue that has troubled women’s tennis for some time. Just who is the real world number one? Even at the start of the final major week of the year, we still don’t know. Dinara Safina will go back to the top again on Monday, but by a mere 155 points from second ranked Serena Williams. It means that results in Doha will determine which player seals the coveted year-end number one ranking.

The computer ranking system has gone through many changes since its inception almost 35 years ago. Since 1996, the WTA has awarded points based on results in a certain number of tournaments over a 52 week rolling cycle.

This is a very similar model to that used by the ATP World Tour. For example, this season the number of counting events has been capped at a player’s ‘best sixteen’ results – which must include performances in the four Grand Slams, year-end Tour Championships and WTA Premier level mandatory tournaments. Players can enter more events, but only the best sixteen are counted in their overall rankings score.

The problem with this current system is a pretty significant one. In short, all too often it fails to tell the world who the best player actually is – or how she compares against her rivals. Instead, quantity is rewarded over quality.

You might think it right that players who compete more often should get the opportunity to further improve their ranking score. But even the most casual tennis fan would appreciate that winning a Grand Slam title is what should really gain more reward.

Dinara Safina is just the most recent example of someone to have held the number one ranking without winning a Grand Slam title. Safina has had an excellent season, in which she reached the Australian and French Open finals and also won two WTA Premier level events – Rome and Madrid. But she has still not won a major. And yet on Monday, Safina will again rank ahead of Serena Williams (4.5 to defend her title in Melbourne) as the world number one.

While the American has compiled a somewhat sketchy 21-11 record outside of the Grand Slams this season, she went 13-2 at the majors. Williams is the current Australian Open and Wimbledon champion. In addition, she has beaten Safina in six of their seven career meetings – including this year’s Australian Open final. Yet she is still ranked number two.

There are a plethora of other examples like this. Think back to last summer when Jelena Jankovic (19.0 to win the Australian Open) climbed to the top of the rankings. Unlike Safina, Jankovic had never even been to a major final when she became the worlds best in August 2008. Even worse, Jankovic had won only a single tournament in the twelve months before she became number one.

In 2003, Kim Clijsters (5.3 to win the Australian Open) reached number one even though she had never won a major at that point. Amelie Mauresmo also achieved the feat the following year, despite her best Grand Slam result having been a semi-final appearance when she reached the top. There are too many other instances to mention here. But they all have one thing in common: the player who reached number one did it without winning a Grand Slam singles title. That cannot be right.

So, what’s the solution? Well to start with, at least two things need to be done. Firstly, the ranking system needs to give even greater weight to Grand Slam performance in relation to WTA Tour level success than it does at present. For everyone, the Slams are the most important events in the game and should be further recognised as such. There may still be the occasional player who slips through the net and reaches number one without a Grand Slam title in the bag – but these cases would be much rarer.

In addition, a return to the ‘quality points’ system used by the WTA Tour between 1996 and 2005 – where women received extra points on a sliding scale based on the ranks of players they defeated – would also acknowledge victories over highly-ranked opponents and so reflect a player’s true status in the game. A great sporting rivalry – the classic head to head – is what truly excites followers of any individual sport.

For now though, we continue to be lumbered with the current system. Put simply, Serena needs to go one match better than Safina in Doha to snatch the year-end number one spot. But whoever clinches it – what is clear is that the present system doesn’t properly serve the interests of fans, sponsors, or even the players themselves.

Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. © The Sporting Exchange Limited

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