Tennis: Revised ranks reveal a truer picture

Confusion over the points system has forced the ATP Tour to simplify its arcane method of selecting the world's best players

NINE WEEKS into the tennis calendar, Pete Sampras was simultaneously ranked No 1 and No 84 in the world. This took some comprehending, given that the great American barely had lifted a racket in defence of his position at the head of the game.

The figures were accurate. The ATP Tour's rankings computer does not lie; it processes the information it is fed.

In the world rankings list for 8 March, Sampras stood at No 1 on the basis of the ATP's criteria: his best 14 results over a rolling 52-week period. But in the year-long race to qualify for the eight-man ATP Tour Singles Championship in Hanover, based solely on results during the current season, Sampras lagged in 84th place. He had only played one tournament.

Although Sampras ended the 1998 season as the world No 1 for a record sixth consecutive year, he scarcely could be considered the form horse in 1999 while confined to the stable. Exhausted by the pursuit of ranking points towards the end of the previous season, Sampras had taken a break.

The Sampras case is a perfect example of the public confusion behind the question put to the ATP Tour most frequently: How can somebody stay in the top 10 and not play for weeks? The simple answer is that players move up and down the rankings, even if they do not play, because results are "dropped" in the course of the revolving 52 weeks (the ATP Tour needs 12 pages in its rule book to explain the points system).

Sampras is of the opinion that world rankings should be finalised at the end of each calendar year, and the ATP Tour has decided to embark on just such a course.

At the beginning of next year, every player will start with zero in a points race. At the end of the year, when the race concludes at the ATP Tour Singles Championship, to be held in Lisbon, the player with the most points will be declared No 1.

While giving precedence to the points race, the ATP Tour will continue to maintain the revolving 52-week calculations as a shadow system for the purpose of tournament entries and seedings. "Without such a system, there would be chaos at the tournaments," Larry Scott, the ATP Tour's chief operating officer, said.

The rankings system is the cornerstone of professional tennis, determining which players get into tournaments and which players are seeded. The list is also convenient for the media in tagging the competitors ("Kafelnikov has a shot at Sampras's No 1 spot"; "Haas has top 10 potential"; "Courier has dropped out of the top 20"). Agents and sponsors use the rankings to determine a player's real, or potential, value in the sports business marketplace.

"The points race rankings will begin to mirror the internal revolving system as the season evolves," Scott said, "but it will not be sufficient in determining fields during most of the year."

Since 1990, a player's ranking has been based on the total points earned from his best 14 results over the previous 52 weeks. He is not penalised for first-round defeats, even if the losses occur at the Grand Slam championships (the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the United States Open), where most points are at stake.

The best-14 system had its critics from the outset. "Imagine if Ivan Lendl was a surgeon," mused an Italian colleague, Ubaldo Scanagatta, of La Nazione. "He performs 14 perfect operations, and everything is wonderful - never mind that he kills many others in the theatre."

Acknowledging a flaw in the system, Scott said: "If a player enters 28 events - not uncommon in today's game - then half of his results are not calculated. Many believe the system has led to some lacklustre performances and, in some cases, athletes playing too much to make up for bad performances."

Endeavouring to rectify the situation, the ATP Tour is to make 13 tournaments mandatory: the four Grand Slams plus the Tour's Super 9 events, such as the recent $2.45m (pounds 1.5m) Eurocard Open in Stuttgart and $2.55m Open de Paris. A player's result in these tournaments will always be calculated in the total. A no-show for any reason or a first-round loss will result in zero points.

A player's points figure will also include his five best other tournament results for a total of 18. Bonus points for defeating higher-ranked players will be eliminated to ensure that the race and the ranking lists are the same at year end. Results at the ATP Tour Championship will be added to the final ranking figures for the eight players who qualify.

"I am in favour of the change," Britain's Tim Henman said, "but I still think it needs to be a little bit clearer. It's better, because it's putting more emphasis on the big tournaments. You've got to come and play in all of them, and every match you play is going to count. Under the present system I can turn up and lose in tournaments and not get penalised for it, because I can go and play in more tournaments and make it up.

"Next year, the four Grand Slams and the nine Super 9s, which are our [ATP Tour] majors, if you like, they're going to count on your ranking, and I think that's a good thing. But the clearer and easier to understand they can make it for for the public the better. Time will tell whether they're able to do that."

Andre Agassi, who will finish 1999 as the world No 1, having slumped to No 141 two years ago, said: "It's real simple. I want to be the best that I can and try to win. However they score it, is how they score it. The ranking system's not going to change. The ranking system is the same. It's 52 weeks.

"But it will be nice to have the tournaments with all the players there, and try to win. It's good for the game."

Jim Courier, No 1 for a total of 58 weeks earlier in the decade, is solidly behind the change. "The ranking system as it is now is very difficult for the hyper tennis fan to understand, let alone the casual tennis fan," the Floridian said.

Some unfamiliar names may appear at the top of the table, particularly early in the season. "I think where people are getting it slightly wrong," Henman said, "is in a case like when [Rainer] Schuttler beat me in the final at Doha in the first week of the year. Does that make him world No 1? No, it doesn't. We're running a marathon, and our marathon is for 48 weeks, and he's in the lead.

"But it doesn't mean that he's the best runner if he was running a marathon. I think it will be exciting to see a few different names, and I think it will be something really good for the people to be able to follow."

Courier offered a football analogy: "If Manchester United are leading the league, it doesn't mean they've won the league, it means they're leading on the way to the end of the season."

This year the No 1 position on the ATP Tour has had more occupants than usual. Carlos Moya, of Spain, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, of Russia, Pat Rafter, of Australia, and Andre Agassi, of the United States, have taken turns in supplanting Sampras. Kafelnikov rose to the top in spite of losing his opening-round match in six consecutive tournaments.

"There was a lot of talk about that," Henman said. "In the present ranking system, Kafelnikov was world No 1, and there's no way you can argue against that.

"I think it was just unfortunate that he had a bad run of form, and it was then that Pete dropped some points, and Kafelnikov went to No 1. It was unfortunate timing, but I don't think it was a great advertisement for the rankings system at present.

Greg Rusedski is unconvinced. "It's going to be extremely difficult to get to No 1," he said. "The No 1 is only at the end of the year, which I don't particularly like as much as the way it is now. I don't like the zero- pointers, if someone has a legitimate injury. I think it's unfair. For example, when I hurt my ankle at Wimbledon in 1998, under the new system I'd get a zero-pointer at Wimbledon, zero pointer for Cincinnati, zero pointer for Toronto. It's really not my fault.

"We're talking about a sport that goes 11 months of the year, that starts in January and finishes the end of November, sometimes even the end of November if you're still in the Davis Cup.

"I don't think a lot of players are happy with the zero-pointer clause. But it's in there, and I don't think the players can do anything about it."

"The new system won't satisfy everyone," Henman acknowledged, "but I think it will be a step in the right direction."

POINTS WIN PRIZES: A COMPARISON OF THE OLD AND NEW SYSTEMS

ATP TOUR WORLD RANKINGS,

22 NOV 1999

(Based on best 14 points over revolving 52 weeks. Top eight qualified for Hanover)

11 Andre Agassi (USA)

12 Yevgeny Kafelnikov (Russia)

13 Gustavo Kuerten (Brazil)

14 Thomas Enqvist (Sweden)

15 Pete Sampras (USA)

16 Nicolas Kiefer (Germany)

17 Todd Martin (USA)

18 Nicolas Lapentti (Ecuador)

19 Marcelo Rios (Chile)

10 Richard Krajicek (Netherlands)

11 Tommy Haas (Germany)

12 Tim Henman (Great Britain)

13 Cedric Pioline (France)

14 Greg Rusedski (Great Britain)

15 Magnus Norman (Sweden)

Top 10 in the year 2000 system, as it would have appeared on 8 March 1999

Points race 52-week rankings (for seeding and entries)

1 Y Kafelnikov 1 P Sampras

2 T Enqvist 2 Y Kafelnikov

3 T Haas 3 A Corretja

4 T Martin 4 C Moya

5 M Rosset 5 P Rafter

6 K Kucera 6 M Rios

7 T Henman 7 T Henman

8 R Krajicek 8 R Krajicek

9 N Lapentti 9 A Agassi

10 G Rusedski 10 G Rusedski

Note: In a points race, Sampras would be ranked No 84 on 8 March 1999, having played in only one event.

ANDRE AGASSI'S YEAR SO FAR*

Hanover Ranking

No No

Australian Open 23 16

Indian Wells 34 19

Key Biscayne 34 19

Monte Carlo 23 10

Hamburg 29 14

Rome 32 13

French Open 34 14

Wimbledon 14 14

Montreal 11 13

Cincinnati 11 13

US Open 11 12

Stuttgart 11 11

Paris Indoor 11 11

Hanover 11 11

*As of the seeding date at start of each event

PETE SAMPRAS'S YEAR SO FAR*

Hanover Ranking

No No

Australian Open 1- 1

Indian Wells 1- 1

Key Biscayne 73 2

Monte Carlo 45 1

Hamburg 55 2

Rome 62 2

French Open 59 2

Wimbledon 39 1

Montreal 17 1

Cincinnati 14 1

US Open 13 1

Stuttgart 14 3

Paris Indoor 14 3

Hanover 15 5

*As of the seeding date at start of each event

TIM HENMAN'S YEAR SO FAR*

Hanover Ranking

No No

Australian Open 12 17

Indian Wells 17 17

Key Biscayne 17 16

Monte Carlo 110 17

Hamburg 13 17

Rome 13 18

French Open 14 17

Wimbledon 11 16

Montreal 15 15

Cincinnati 16 15

US Open 18 15

Stuttgart 19 10

Paris Indoor 11 10

Hanover 12 12

*As of the seeding date at start of each event

GREG RUSEDSKI'S YEAR SO FAR*

Hanover Ranking

No No

Australian Open 38 19

Indian Wells 10 10

Key Biscayne 13 13

Monte Carlo 15 12

Hamburg 23 12

Rome 25 11

French Open 28 13

Wimbledon 25 12

Montreal 23 10

Cincinnati 24 19

US Open 28 18

Stuttgart 16 16

Paris Indoor 13 16

Hanover 14 14

*As of the seeding date at start of each event

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