Saturday, 9 October 2010

Consistency over Quality?


One last post on the rankings kerfuffle and I’ll drop it. Promise.


I only return to it because this article did the rounds on twitter in the moments leading up to that pivotal Woz/Kvitova match.


I loved it. Not because I agree with all of it (I don’t), but because it attempted to provide a real workable alternative to the current rankings system instead of what you normally hear, which is endless bitching about “consistency over quality” without, I suspect, even understanding what that means.


It also raised a number of interesting points, some of which I confess were completely new to me.




As I think I’ve mentioned many times in the past, I’m not one of those that think the rankings system is in urgent need of a makeover. And I don’t have much time either for the “consistency over quality” brigade (CQB), not, at least, in the reductive terms they like to present their case.


You can certainly argue, as many have, that the system rewards players who play consistently throughout the year. I must have missed the part where this is an outrage, but, in any case, you can also argue that had Serena or any other one of the big guns played even the minimum acceptable quota of tennis throughout the year (hint: not doing so is at least as much of an outrage), we wouldn’t even be having this debate.


It was the same when Dinara made the top spot and I’ll be darned if I change my tune now simply because I don’t think so highly of Caz as I do of Dinara.


It’s not that I don’t think that it stinks that a player that’s made only a single Slam SF this year should be allowed to supplant one that’s won two (although worth noting Serena hung on to it for a full 12 months).


But the CQB argument, in it’s essence, amounts to saying that the top players should be allowed to get away with playing just the Slams – and I’m afraid I simply don’t buy that. If that’s true, then why have a “tour” at all?




After reading the article, on balance, I still don’t think the current rankings system is to blame – after all many of the criticisms it raises are equally true of the ATP and I’m yet to see anyone quite so up in arms over that.


All the same, it does make a rather good case that the system would benefit from a certain “nip & tuck”, if not a complete makeover.


1) They really used to reward beating the top ranked players with quality points?


That’s news to me, I confess. Although I doubt I ever took much notice.


The credibility of the women’s ranking system began plummeting after 2003 when the tour stopped awarding quality points. This system saw players receive more or less points depending on the ranking of the players they defeated. For example, a player who defeated the World’s No. 1 and 2 players to win a title would get more points than a player who won an equivalent tournament but whose best-ranked opponents were No. 19 and No. 20.

[Wozniacki’s] won most of her matches against lowly-ranked opposition. During 2010, she has defeated just two Top 10 players, and astonishingly has not even faced a player ranked in the Top 5. In fact, until her defeat of Maria Sharapova in the fourth round in New York, her collective win-loss record against Sharapova, Clijsters, Serena and Venus Williams and Justine Henin—currently the five most successful active players on tour—was a staggering 0-10.



The puritan in me loves this idea. On the other hand, it also smacks of the type of state regulation and bureaucracy most governments around the world are keen to be seen to be distancing themselves from.


I can certainly see how it might be perceived as overly manipulative and intrusive. Also, why should the top ranked player be penalised for not having anyone ranked higher than them?


2) The old WTA ranking was actually the mean ranking points accrued across all events played that year.


Didn’t know about this either. It would certainly solve the “consistency over quality” problem. Overnight.


Up until 1997, the WTA Tour also used to divide a player’s ranking points total by the number of events she had played, effectively preventing players from accumulating thousands of points simply by playing a lot.

A player like Wozniacki has benefitted enormously from the current system. She has a whopping 24 events currently counting in her ranking, considerably more than most other Top 20 players.


And yet, again, it’s not a device currently used by the ATP either. No one’s died as a result. No one’s ranked beyond their worth or measure either.


3) The ATP question.


…since the ATP Tour debuted its current system in the early 2000s (it has been altered in minor ways since then but remains essentially the same), there have been few arguments. The current Top 4—Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray—are indeed the best four players on the planet in the past year.


Agreed. Though, again, this has rather more to do the ordered nature of the tour and the quality of the players involved than the rankings system being employed – bet things would be largely unchanged if we used the WTA system.


4) Why do WTA runners up and semi finalists get more ranking points than their ATP counterparts?


Male and female Grand Slam winners each receive 2000 points. But the WTA Tour awards finalists 1400 points, while the ATP Tour gives the equivalent player only 1200. Female semifinalists are awarded 900 points, but male semifinalists receive 720. And down the line it goes. The same applies for Masters events—the points are halved, but the same difference in point ratio and structure exists. Dinara Safina was able to reach No. 1 after reaching two Grand Slam finals in 2009. Under the men’s system she would have had 400 points less in her total, and may not have hit top spot without actually clinching a major title.


This escaped my notice. I guarantee you’d have heard from me sooner had I known.


No way on earth is this justifiable. Certainly not with everything we’ve heard on equal prize money.


Moreover, it’s exactly the kind of ammo WTA haters will use to claim they’re being peddled a mediocre product, or that the WTA is in the business of rewarding mediocrity.


You wouldn’t think of awarding WTA Slam winners more than 2000 points, so why the disparity further down the chain?


5) If you rank the women using the ATP system, it turns out that surprisingly little changes, although the difference between Serena and Caz increases considerably.


First things first: The WTA rankings system is an absolute pig to navigate and understand. Try it.


Distilled down to it’s bare essence, players score on their best 16 results of the year, which are made up of:


a) The 4 Slams (2000 pts), 4 Premier Mandatories (1000 pts) and the SEC (assuming you’re eligible to play them).


b) Top 10 players are further required to play at least 2 Premier-5 events (900 points). Top 20 players must include their best 2 Premier-5 events should they choose to play them.


There’s a whole amalgam of other rules, but these are what I understand to be the most relevant.


Fortunately the ATP is a lot less complicated.


A player’s ranking is comprised of a total of 18 events (19 if you qualify for WTF) made up of the 4 Slams, 8 Masters-1000s plus:


(i) The best 4 ATP-500s + the best 2 other events (250s & Challengers) if you’re a top 30 player, or


(ii) The best 6 events (with up to 4 ATP 500s) if you’re not a top 30 player.



And here’s what happens if you rank the women according to the ATP (Premier Mandatories and Premier-5s take the place of Masters-1000s):



Serena Williams remained atop the rankings, but increased her lead over Wozniacki to 1500 points (compared with the 1,000 that separates them now). There would be far less chance for Wozniacki to overtake Williams until at least after next year’s Australian Open. And that’s only if Williams doesn’t play. Under the WTA system, the Dane could reach No. 1 by year’s end.


Clijsters moved from No. 5 to No. 3, ahead of both Venus Williams and Zvonareva. She sits just 200 points behind Wozniacki, and unlike the Dane, has no points to defend between now and year’s end. Being ranked No. 2 or 3 paints a more realistic picture of Clijsters’ stellar season.


Francesca Schiavone swapped places with Sam Stosur, ranking No. 7 ahead of the Aussie’s No. 8. Most people would agree that Stosur has had the better year, but this is a great example of how the ATP system rewards winning major titles. And that’s what has separated Schiavone from Stosur in 2010.

Maria Sharapova rose three places to No. 12, her superior performances in several Masters-level events helping her leapfrog several players.



Two immediate observations:


a) The biggest shift has arguably occurred where it matters most: in the gulf that’s opened up between Caz and Serena.


This is, after all, the front line of the dispute, and in that sense it’s been quite instructive having Caz (with her 23 tournaments and only one Slam SF) right behind her polar opposite (Serena has 14 tournaments, 2 Slam wins).


b) Apart from that, not an awful lot has changed. I know people will say Kim has hopped up a couple of places as has Masha, but it’s still not quite the wholesale transformation the CQB like to have us believe it would be.


Worth also nothing that Kimmie is still ranked behind Caz – the reason being that she’s only played 13 events, not that the systems full of crap.





» The current rankings system does indeed reward consistency more than it’s ATP counterpart


No way of avoiding that the blokes are contracted to play 12 “big league” events out of a total of 18 - for the women its a mere 8 of 16, after which they’re free to pic’n mix from Challengers, International events, 250s and so on.


Even so, this is nowhere near the corrupting influence it’s being presented as.


» The maximum number of events that make up a WTA player's ranking is capped at 16.


The CQB like to pretend that it’s possible to incrementally build up your ranking by playing an outlandish number of events like some great towering inferno. Completely misleading.


Woz is indeed free to play, say, 25 events a year – though only the best 16 of these will count towards her ranking. And after you take out her contractual minimum of 4 Slams, 4 Premier Mandatories and 2 Premier-5s – that leaves only 6 events within which she might choose to, say, swap out a 1st round exit at a Premier $600K event  (worth 1 ranking point) with a win worth 140 ranking pts she might have had at an International event.


That certainly gives you more chances to increase your ranking – but it shouldn’t be confused with incrementally building up your ranking by playing event after event after event.


» Only when you subject the system to the extreme case of quantity being literally juxtaposed with quality (as it is with Woz being ranked just under Serena) does it begin to produce debatable results that, like some X-rated flick, “some viewers might offensive”.


And it is only “some” – you might justifiably argue that holding on to the top spot for 12 months having only played 14 events is long enough.


In any case, it’s far likelier these incongruities are the result of injury and selective participation on the part of the elite.

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