Azarenka or Serena Williams? Who deserves to be world no.1?

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Yet another season on the WTA has come to an end and once again many tennis fans and pundits have decided that rather then spend time looking back on the highlights of this year, instead they’d rather argue over the idea that the person awarded the honor of being only the 11th woman in the tour’s history to end a season as its top ranked player really isn’t at all.

That person would be Victoria Azarenka who, by virtue of reaching the semifinals at last week’s WTA Championships in Istanbul, earned enough ranking points to finish the year as No. 1. Though Serena Williams ended up defeating Maria Sharapova in the finals, Williams will finish the year as No. 3 in the world behind Sharapova and Azarenka. But the math used by the WTA computer to calculate Williams’s ranking is basically being ignored by those who feel Williams should be given the No. 1 ranking simply because she won two Majors, an Olympic gold medal in Singles, her third year-end championships, and ending the year with only four losses.

Nobody’s going to deny Williams didn’t have a standout season, but even she admitted when asked right after winning Istanbul that though she thinks 2013 was really great for her, she got off to a slow start early in the season and still views 2002, the year of her “Serena Slam” as her best ever. While many want to focus on Williams’s recent accomplishments and rightly so, they seem to either forget or just ignore that it was Azarenka’s stellar first four months of the year that actually cemented her year-end ranking.

Though an ankle injury may have played a factor in Williams losing earlier than expected in the fourth round of Melbourne, it was Azarenka who went on to win the the title, her first ever Major, and thus rise to No.1. Azarenka then continued her 26-match win streak that included winning Doha and Indian Wells before finally losing in Miami to Marion Bartoli. Serena herself finally got her season going on clay by winning Charleston and Madrid. But it was the shocking first round loss at Roland Garros by the American to Virginie Razzano that not only kept her from winning a second French Open title, but with regards to the race for No. 1, probably was the main reason she only rose to as high as No. 3 by season’s end.

Williams, after winning the U.S. Open, came down with flu-like symptoms and thus decided to not compete during the Asian swing of events and that prevented her from earning more points. Azarenka herself went on another winning streak at that time that included winning Beijing and later Linz. By the time the elite eight entered Istanbul, only Sharapova had a chance to knock Azarenka out of the top spot, but only if she won the title and if Azarenka failed to make it out of the round robin group phase. That scenario didn’t happen thus securing Azarenka the No. 1 ranking.

While Azarenka hasn’t been subjected to the same questions of legitimacy and ‘Do you feel worthy of No. 1?’ as Caroline Wozniacki endured over the last two years when she held the top ranking, this current debate on who “deserves” to be No. 1 is less about Azarenka’s achievements and more about the rankings system itself that continues to reward consistent results over a 52-week period for all players rather than just those who do very well at the biggest events. The Belarusian was the most successfully consistent player all year and that’s why she earned, and fully deserves, to be year-end No. 1.

Most tennis fans don’t really care about how the rankings work or that the WTA and the ITF, the organization that oversees the four Majors, are two separate entities with their own separate goals. To many, the Majors are all that really matter and if a player wins one or two of them in a year, that should count more in factoring who becomes and remains No. 1. And if one player consistently beats another player all season, as Williams did against Azarenka, they that should also be a factor in the process. Perhaps it should and there are arguments by many, including some players, that the WTA should bring back the “bonus” points a player used to get by beating someone in the top 10. But that’s not going to happen, not next year anyway, so any current or future debates on why and how someone should be No. 1 are rather pointless. If we’ve learned anything from other sports with their own ranking systems and controversies surrounding them, few are ever 100% perfect.

Victoria Azarenka had an amazing season and her best ever on tour. Serena Williams had, according to her, her second best season ever in her career that included some of the most dominating performances we’ll ever see, especially at the Olympics. Williams is without a doubt the player of the year. But Azarenka fully earned the No. 1 ranking based on how each week was calculated by the rankings system, the same way for everyone else competing in the WTA.

Debate over.

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One thought on “Azarenka or Serena Williams? Who deserves to be world no.1?

  1. The reasoning in this post seems pretty muddled to me. “Azarenka fully earned the No. 1 ranking based on how each week was calculated by the rankings system, the same way for everyone else competing in the WTA. Debate over.” So Azarenka deserves to be #1 because she *is* #1? If that’s the case, then what are we even talking about? (Incidentally, how does someone less-than-fully earn the #1 ranking? You either have the most points or you don’t.)

    This issue strikes me as exceedingly simple. The problem is that the WTA uses its rankings for its own purposes, which are only tangentially related to showing who the best players are. The WTA’s main concern is getting players to participate in the tour events that generate the WTA’s profits. So the tour events are overvalued relative to the slams, and players probably get more credit for a semifinal or final relative to a tournament win than they ought to. And the rankings assume a minimum number of tournaments that is higher than necessary if the only aim is to figure out who the best player is. And all of this combines to produce a ranking that is not in touch with reality.

    So what’s the solution? I don’t think the WTA should necessarily change its rankings, because it has its own interests to protect, and getting the rankings just right honestly isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a big deal (particularly because there’s no difference in seeding between #1 and #2, #3 and #4, etc.). The solution is for the media and to a lesser extent the WTA itself to stop touting the WTA rankings as some sort of sanctified gauge of who the best player is. That’s not what they’re intended to do, and it’s only because that’s what people expect of them that there’s all this angst when the rankings don’t reflect the best.

    Azarenka is the true WTA rankings #1, which is to say she truly has more WTA rankings points than anyone else. That’s all that means. She’s *NOT* the true #1 in terms of being the best player in the world. It’s time we all stop pretending that these two things are supposed to be the same. Who is the best is a much more complicated question than who has the most WTA points, and instead of defaulting to a ranking system that we all know is grossly oversimplified and honestly doesn’t have much effect on anything anyway, we should decide for ourselves who the best is. This year, that is clearly Serena. (And don’t talk to me about consistency–she had one bad event all year and lost only four times. She was consistent.)

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