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Time to fix ranking system
12/08/2003 13:04 - (SA)

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New York - 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 gap 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 on 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).

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 last four matches against No 3 Justine Henin-Hardenne.

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

Consistent performer

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 semi-finals 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 August 1).

Not the oddest

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.
 
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