Tennis

WTA rankings must consider quality wins

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Matt Cronin

Matt Cronin is a senior editor at Inside Tennis magazine and the co-owner of the award-winning TennisReporters.net.

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On Monday, Caroline Wozniacki will become No. 1 for the second time in her career after having the top spot seized from her for one week by the tour’s best player, Kim Clijsters.

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Expect a decent amount of vacillations at the top spot (as well as in the top 10) for at least the next few months, as Denmark’s Wozniacki and Belgium’s Clijsters are very close to each other in points earned. After Indian Wells (where Wozniacki has to defend runner-up points and could lose the top spot again to Clijsters) and Miami (where Clijsters has to defend points from her title and could lose her top spot to Wozniacki), both have very little to defend until the U.S. hard court season kicks off in late July.

This season, like the past few years, has been marked by statistical oddities at the top, because despite the fact that Clijsters has clearly been the tour’s most accomplished elite player since last August – winning the Premier title at Cincinnati, her third U.S. Open, the year-ending WTA Championships and her first Australian Open and reaching two finals at Sydney and at the Paris Indoors – she only was able to grab No. 1 (for the fourth time in her career) for a single week.

Some of that has to do with her decision to play a limited schedule, and part of that has to do with the fact that she missed two months of last season because of injury and was unable to play mandatory tournaments in Madrid and at the French Open, which gave her zero points in her ranking.

For her part, Wozniacki has played and won more matches than any other player during the past two years. Ranking are decided using a 52-week revolving system; in that period, Wozniacki has played eight more tournaments than Clijsters has (23 to 15). She can count only 16 tournaments in her ranking, so she gets to throw out some results (no player is allowed to throw out results from the four Grand Slams or the five Premier mandatory events) while Clijsters is short one result in her ranking and can’t toss out any.

In that scenario, Wozniacki clearly has an advantage.

She’s 20-year-old workhorse who rarely gets injured (although an ankle injury she sustained last April was partly responsible for her poor results on clay) and has a hard time unlacing her tennies and taking a rest. So despite the fact that Sunday’s resounding 6-1, 6-3 victory over two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in Dubai was only her first title of the year, Wozniacki again seized the top spot. She will hold it until at least March 20, the conclusion of the tournament at Indian Wells.

She will begin her 19th week at No. 1 on Monday and will pass Jelena Jankovic (18 weeks at No. 1), and eventually Clijsters (20) and Tracy Austin (21) by the time Indian Wells is over. She has chance of catching Dinara Safina (26) in April and could possibly catch Amelie Mauresmo (39) in the summer. If Wozniacki passes Safina, she’ll hold the uncomfortable distinction of being the longest standing No. 1 without a Slam title, a weight she will not want to carry around much longer.

Then, the only active player who will have more weeks at No. 1 than the Dane is the injured Serena Williams, who has held that spot on and off for 123 weeks. Serena owns 13 major titles; even if she never holds the top spot – again conceivable considering that she’s 29 years old – by the time she comes back will have been off the court for at least eight months and will be incredibly rusty.

Wozniacki has a lot of positives in her game and has to be commended for her efforts in Dubai, taking down Jankovic (against whom she was 0-4 entering the match) and Kuznetsova, who for much of the week flashed her once-stellar Grand Slam form. No, Clijsters, whom Wozniacki never has beaten, wasn’t there, and neither were any of the other four still active former No. 1s: Serena, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic. But it is not her fault that all of them are injured and, except in the case of Serena, have been well off form for the past six months.

All the Dane can do is go out there and beat who is in front of her. While Clijsters is still a small level above her, she’s only lost to two players outside of the top 20 since Wimbledon began: Petra Kvitova and Dominica Cibulkova. Kvitova is now ranked in the top 20 and Cibulkova has been in the top 20, so it’s not like Wozniacki has played terribly.

No, she almost always plays well; it’s just that she hasn’t been able to play extremely well at the majors against most elite veteran opponents. She plays a relentless, steady game that harks back to the days of former No. 1s Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Martina Hingis. Like them, Wozniacki literally can bore her foes to death. But when she is confident, she can add more oomph to her strokes. Just don’t tell players like Kuznetsova that their losses are a result of Wozniacki’s standout play.

“I just didn’t play well,” Kuznetsova said. “I did too many unforced errors. She played her basic game and didn’t have to do much.”

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Ranking systems never will be perfect. The WTA is in a tough spot when it comes to its method, because what it does not want to do, and should not do, is lessen the minimum number of tournaments (16) that players must have in their ranking. That would encourage players to compete less, and that’s the last thing a sport that is frequently fighting for year-round visibility needs. Most of the veterans (see the Williams sisters, Clijsters and Sharapova) ignore the system anyway, as they are wealthy enough to be able to dictate their own schedules and mostly focus on the majors and could care less if they are ranked No. 3 or No. 9. All of them are going to continue to play limited schedules to protect the wear and tear on their bodies, which leaves the top spot open to the Slam-less likes of Wozniacki, Jankovic and Safina. It’s conceivable that another woman who has yet to win a major, No. 3 Vera Zvonareva, could rise to No. 1 this season without pocketing a Slam.

What the WTA should do is bring back the bonus point system (although in a much simpler form), in which players are awarded additional points for beating highly ranked players. I would not award any additional points for beating someone outside of the top 30, but it would be easy enough to, say, give an additional 10 points for taking out a player ranked Nos. 21-30, 20 for wins over players ranked Nos. 11-20 and 30 for wins over players ranked Nos. 1-10.

In a study done by Tennis.com using the ranking and bonus-point formula from 1996, the 2010 rankings – which went Wozniacki, Zvonareva, Clijsters, Serena and Venus – would have ended up as Clijsters, Zvonareva, Wozniacki, Venus and Serena. That seems a little more in tune with the reality of the circuit and certainly warrants a look for next season.

Think about this: There were no Grand Slam-less No. 1 players until Clijsters became the first one in 2003 (two years before she won her first major at the 2005 U.S. Open). Now we’ve had four. Given the veterans are the ones who have won the past 11 majors and its improbable that they are going to play schedules as full as the youngsters are, it’s clearly time once again to favor quality of victories over quantity of victories. Bonus points do not have to be seen as bogus points.

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