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Is the ranking system appropriate?

By Howard Fendrich
Associated Press

Maybe it's time for the WTA Tour to consider a new ranking system, one that rewards pure excellence over pure consistency.

By any standard, Kim Clijsters is a fantastic tennis player, among the best in the world. But is she really No. 1? No way.

Until Monday, that distinction rightly belonged to Serena Williams, who earned it by winning five of the past six Grand Slam titles. Clijsters never has won a major championship -- the first top-ranked player with that lacuna on her record.

The trouble is, the complicated formula used by the WTA Tour bases rankings on the preceding 12 months, assigning points for how a player fares at her best 17 tournaments in that span.

So Clijsters was able to supplant Williams at No. 1 Monday, the 12th woman to hold that spot since computer rankings began in 1975.

The change is largely due to this: Clijsters has played in 22 tournaments over the past 52 weeks, while Williams has played in 11. The Belgian gets points from 17 events in that span (with a tour-high nine titles), while Williams must make do with points from 11 events (and seven titles).

Jeff Sagarin, whose college football rankings for USA Today are part of the Bowl Championship Series formula, thinks one of the problems with tennis rankings is they don't account for margins of victory. And, he points out, "they go by volume.''

Sagarin developed a system for grading tennis in the 1970s, though he hasn't applied it to the current women's game.

"It seems that Serena Williams wins every time. My hunch is that my system would have her No. 1,'' Sagarin said. "And it's not like she's playing kids in elementary school. She's beating the best at the top tournaments.''

Williams owns an 8-1 career edge over Clijsters. How has Clijsters fared against other top players, one measure of greatness? She's 2-5 against Venus Williams, and has lost three of her past four matches against No. 3 Justine Henin-Hardenne.

Not one player in the top 20 has a winning record against Serena.

It's also telling that apologists for the current ranking system use one word over and over: "consistent.''

"The ranking is a balance between the results and the major events, and rewards consistent performance over a long season from January to November,'' WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott said in a recent telephone interview. "Kim, while she has not won some of the majors, has been a consistent performer, won a lot of tournaments and played a lot of events.''

And here's what Martina Navratilova -- whose 331 weeks at No. 1 are second to Steffi Graf's 377 -- said about Clijsters: "She is very consistent and has won a whole bunch of tournaments, so she's earned it.''

Indeed, Clijsters reached the semifinals at all 14 tournaments she's played in 2003, collecting a tour-leading six titles.

But sports is supposed to be about the spectacular, and athletes are celebrated for transcending what are thought to be the bounds of their games. That's one of the reasons we're fixated with statistics and records.

And in individual events such as tennis and golf, it's the major championships that define greatness.

Actually, it might be time for tennis to take its cue from golf, where the player who clearly is the best, Tiger Woods, is entrenched at No. 1.

There are two big differences between the sports' rating systems, two elements that tennis might want to look into:

golf compares players' results over two years;

golf takes a point total and divides it by the number of tournaments (with a minimum of 40) for an average score.

That way, players don't lose as much ground when sidelined by injury (Serena hasn't played since Wimbledon and had left knee surgery Aug. 1).

By no means is Clijsters' rise to No. 1 the oddest in tennis history. That distinction probably belongs to Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who moved atop the men's rankings in May 1999 on the heels of six straight first-round losses.

Clijsters figures she deserves her new standing. There is something to be said, after all, for competing with the best, week in, week out, and faring well -- if not overwhelmingly.

Asked last week about her probable ascension, Clijsters pointed out the reason for her success.

"I've played about three times as many tournaments as Serena. It's not that if you win one tournament, you have to be No. 1,'' Clijsters said, then paused before adding: "It's about consistency.''

And that's precisely the problem.

Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected]

17,738 Posts
The thing is the ranking does favour players who play more, because the WTA needs this to make more money.
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592 Posts


By Richard Vach, Senior Writer

As a former ATP Rankings administrator, this is one of the most unbelievable and difficult things to say, but here it goes: Kim Clijsters actually deserves to be No. 1., and COUGH, gack!...sorry, bit of a dry heave there. Still kind of tough to say, still coming to terms with it.

A number of "tennis writers" have come out saying that Serena still deserves to be No. 1, no matter how few tournaments she plays.

"By any standard, Kim Clijsters is a fantastic tennis player, among the best in the world. But is she really No. 1? No way," writes the Associated Press' Howard Fendrich.

Well, yes. No, seriously, yes. The Belgian who established herself as a big-match choker on numerous occasions this year has also been the most consistent player on tour, reaching the semifinals or better in her first 14 tournaments, including a tour-leading six titles.

Pundits will point out that the top waffle has yet to win a grand slam title, while Serena Williams has won this year at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. To many it is a matter of quality vs. quantity, Serena winning the ones that matter vs. Kim winning...the rest. And to make matters worse, Clijsters took over the top spot while Serena was sidelined by surgery.

But even before Serena went under the knife, she was ducking out of her tournament obligations to pursue an acting career. That I'm not even going to touch. Whatever floats your boat. But you get the point, Serena has lost the focus. Kim is on the court, while Serena will be lucky to appear on "The People's Court."

Let me clue you in on something the typical teen logging on to the WTA bulletin board hasn't grasped -- tennis is a business. Like any business, you have to get your product out there for people to see, and Serena just hasn't been seen that much in 2003.

Serena has only played 11 tournaments over the last 52 weeks, compared with 23 for Clijsters. If you're a tournament director in, say, Toronto, you're going to value Kim Clisters showing up to play as opposed to Serena Williams saying she is going to play, then pulling out for an "acting commitment." If you're a ticket-paying fan, or even a tennis couch potato, you're likely going to want to see your favorite stars playing more than once in a five-week stretch.

Serena supporters point to the need for a new ranking system, a ranking system that will keep Serena No. 1 no matter how little she plays, and to Jeff Sagarin, whose college football rankings for USA Today are part of the Bowl Championship Series formula, and someone who knows zero about tennis. Sagarin was asked to come up with an alternate ranking system.

"It seems that Serena Williams wins every time. My hunch is that my system would have her No. 1," Sagarin said. "And it's not like she's playing kids in elementary school. She's beating the best at the top tournaments."

That should tell you about how valuable that input is. Sagarin obviously didn't want that much tennis this year during the claycourt season when Serena got her ass handed to her on a weekly basis.

Former No. 1 Martina Navratilova has a different opinion on Clijster's ascention.

"She is very consistent and has won a whole bunch of tournaments, so she's earned it," said Navratilova, who knows something about the grind of collecting titles, no matters who decides to either show up or audition for the WB. "Even without an injury (Serena and Venus) pulled out of more tournaments in one year than I did in my career." Taking a look at other top players, Jelena Dokic has competed in more tournaments than Serena and Venus put together over the past 52 weeks.

Injury issues aside, when you're the No. 1 player in the world, and you're hungry to stay No. 1, you beat the other players down, not skip out on your already-limited schedule. Toward the end of his six-year reign as the year-end No. 1 on the ATP, Pete Sampras busted his ass toward the latter end of the year during the indoor Euro season, not his favorite time of the year, beating back his opponents to secure his name in the record books.

If Serena and Venus did their jobs, Clijsters would be relegated to the world of Michael Chang, a workhorse who was held to a career-high of No. 2 by Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, players who entered events, then actually showed up to play.

If you don't like Clijsters at the top, then cover your eyes, because soon enough Justine Henin-Hardenne will assume the top spot, another player who plays more than once a month AND beats the Williams sisters. Let's hear it for the players who play.

Richard Vach is a Senior Writer for He can be reached at [email protected].

I am tired of the ranking question, but saw this today as a rebuttal to Fendrick. I disagree with both writers on various points.

42 Posts
i still like the additive system better...
1. it does make players commit more,
Venus and Serena are being punished
coz they are not "fulfilling" their duties as stars,
just go look at NHL, players know what they are in for,
and they go play 82 games in a yr,
if Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan play only half
of their seasonal games, would they be called
the legends of their own sports?...dont think so...
so please dont make excuses for Serena
u dont see her saying anything about this do you

2. it makes players want to defend the titles more,
which will make the public all much happier,
there is no point for defending champions to defend
if the results are calculated over 2 yrs

3. the performances of the players flunctuate,
this way it eliminates the off day and only
count the best days of the players

4. maybe some players overplay, but they do pay
the price of not moving up as fast in the ranking

5. all the talk about injuries coz of the ranking system
those players are athletes for goodness sake,
you dont see Lisa Raymond or Amanda Coezter
complaining about the new ranking system do you?
they dont injure too often anyways,
and there are qualifiers who play more matches
in a week, and they dont go whining abot injuries,
13 tournaments + 4 Slams just arent that many to play,
the players know what they are in for...
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