The complex ATP ranking system explained

By Online Editorial
Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic (Photo: Edwin Martinez)

Why do players drop down the rankings after winning tournaments? How can a player become world number one without ever winning a Grand Slam? Simon Mundie unravels the notoriously complex mystery of the ATP rankings.

Understanding the ATP rankings system isn’t easy, especially with the changes it’s undergone over the years. The powers that be have repeatedly tinkered with the system; although they are adamant that in its current format it is easy enough to get your head around so that it shouldn’t need much further tweaking.

Until 2009, there were essentially two systems in place: the rankings and the race. Ranking were calculated over the previous 52 week period, while the race plotted players’ performances from the 1st of January only. They ran concurrently from 2000 until the ATP re-branding of 2009, when it was deemed that having both systems was too confusing, so they discarded the race in favour of the sole rolling calendar year ranking system.

Whilst having just the ATP rankings is certainly more straightforward to understand than having two lists, it still suffers from accusations that it can be confusing, particularly as in some instances players do well at tournaments, and yet promptly drop down the rankings. So how exactly does it work?

For players in the top 30, the rankings are calculated by adding up the points awarded in the Grand Slams, the eight obligatory Masters events, the best four ATP World Tour 500 (there are a total of eleven 500 tournaments), and two other events. Players earn a significantly higher quota of points for winning a Grand Slam event than they do for the other tournaments, far more than in the systems’ previous incarnations and also proportionally higher than on the women’s tour. Roger Federer earned himself 2000 points for winning this year’s Australian Open, while Andy Murray was awarded 1200 points for being runner-up.

Winning the trophy at one of the ATP World Tour Masters1000 events like Rome or Cincinnati is, unsurprisingly, worth 1000 points; the rung below that known as the ATP 500 is also handily named. In previous years, the disparity between the different tiers was far closer, which led to players like Marcelo Rios achieving the world number one ranking despite never winning a Grand Slam, something that didn’t sit well with certain players at the time, nor many seasoned observers.

These occurrences caused a rethink, with wins at purple ribbon events increasingly rewarded. Interestingly, the women’s tour is not weighted in the same way, which has left it open to criticism as recently as last year when Serena Williams was the holder of three of the Grand Slam events, yet was farcically ranked number two behind Dinara Safina.

The points players earn for winning a tournament like Wimbledon, are awarded to the player on the Monday after the tournament has finished. These points will then count towards the players ranking until the same time 52 weeks later, so if Roger Federer suffered the shock of shocks and lost in the first round of Wimbledon this year, on the Monday after the tournament finished the points he won in 2009 would be taken away and replaced by the points awarded for losing in the first round (2000 points replaced by a miserly 10).

This is why players can post a reasonable result, like reaching the semi-finals of an event and still drop down the rankings if it didn’t match their performance of twelve months previously. Andy Murray will then lose points on Monday as he failed to match his Dubai performance of 2009 when he reached the quarter finals.

Points can be awarded for Davis Cup play, which wasn’t previously the case, although these are only for World Group and World Group playoff ties- which makes Andy Murray’s decision to restrict Davis Cup play all the more understandable. Points won through Davis Cup play fall in the 500 tournament category.

The top eight players with most points accumulated in the Slams, the Masters and the other events qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals, where the winner is awarded 1500 points. However, the system changes slightly for those who qualify for the finals, in so far as the points they earn don’t stay on their cumulative total for the full 52 weeks, instead they are dropped on the Monday following the last ‘regular’ ATP event of the year. So there we have it — the rankings system in a nutshell.

Reproduced with permission from © The Sporting Exchange Limited


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