Who Is Really No.1 In The World Of WTA Tennis?

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     After Serena Williams outclassed the field at the TEB-BNP Paribas WTA Championships Istanbul, Tennis Channel analyst Jimmy Arias rightly noted, “She’s not going to end the year ranked No. 1 in the world, but she’s No. 1 in the world.”

     But how can that happen? After all, superstar Serena had just beaten No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, No. 5 Angelique Kerber, and No. 8 Li Na in the round-robin event and then overpowered No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska in the semis and No. 2 Maria Sharapova for the coveted, season-ending title – all without losing a set. That culminated a brilliant year in which she also captured Wimbledon, the US Open and an Olympic gold medal. Need more proof? In head-to-head matches, Serena shut out Azarenka 5-0 and Sharapova 3-0 this year. Against players who were ranked in the top 5 when Serena played them, she was also perfect, 14-0.

     Serena deserves the part of the blame for this glaring ranking contradiction because she played only 13 tournaments, and the WTA ranking system counts a maximum of 16. Azarenka played 18 tournaments and amassed 10,595 ranking points; Sharapova played 17 tournaments and racked up 10, 045 points. Had Serena, who earned 9,400 points, played three more tournaments, she would very likely have surpassed Azarenka’s total and ranked No.1.

     But that explains only part of the story, or rather the injustice. Serena collected only an insulting 685 points for grabbing the gold at the London Olympics, compared to 2,000 points for champions at the four Grand Slam events.

   “Toronto [Rogers Cup] is worth more points [1,000 for the winner] than the Olympics. That’s what’s bizarre,” justifiably criticized ESPN analyst and former star John McEnroe. “I don’t know why the Olympics aren’t as important now, in terms of ranking points, as a major. If you only play the Olympics once every four years, how in the world is it less important than 14 other tournaments – not just the four majors, but also 10 other tournaments?” Had Serena received 2,000 points, she would have finished No. 1.

     Moreover, the severely flawed WTA ranking system hurt Serenaby helping every other top 10 player in another crucial way: it did not count all of their tournament results. The ranking rule states: “The tournaments that count towards a player’s ranking are those that yield the highest ranking points during the rolling 52-week period. They must include points from the Grand Slams, Premier Manadatory tournaments and the WTA Championships. For Top 20 players, their best two results (italics added) at Premier 5 tournaments (Doha, Rome, Cincinnati, Montreal/Toronto and Tokyo) will also count.”

     The net result is that the WTA ranking system threw out – did not count! – the results of Azarenka’s two worst lower-level tournaments, Sharapova’s worst tournament, Radwanska’s six worst and Kerber’s five worst.

All tournaments and all tournament matches must count to ensure accurate and thus fair rankings. That is not the case now on both pro tours. If truth in advertising were applied here, the WTA Tour would be required to put this advisory on television: “The results of this non-mandatory tournament match may not be counted in the official rankings for one or both players.” Imagine the powerful outcry if the NBA noted that regular-season games may not count in the standings.

     It is quite peculiar, and even ironic, that the media should have to vote for the WTA “Player of the Year” every November. In 2010, Caroline Wozniacki, who reached just one Grand Slam semifinal but benefitted significantly from playing a whopping 22 tournaments,was wrongly ranked No. 1 in the season-ending rankings. Kim Clijsters was rightly voted WTA “Player of the Year.” In 2011, No. 2 ranked Petra Kvitova, winner at Wimbledon and the WTA Championships, deservedly received the WTA “Player of the Year” award, while Wozniacki, playing 22 events, still ranked No. 1 despite failing to make a major final.

   This absurd and embarrassing contradiction has occurred seven times this century, and will almost certainly occur again this month when Serena, the real No. 1, is honored as “Player of the Year.”

     It should never happen! If the ranking system is well-conceived, accurate and thus fair, then the No.1-ranked player should automatically, and by definition, be the WTA “Player of the Year.”


Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England.

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