Ever since a deal between the ATP and the International Tennis Federation in 2009 allowed ranking points to be awarded for Davis Cup play, there has been unease among the tennis fraternity over the fairness of such a decision.
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“It is, basically, unfair,” said Andy Murray, the world No. 4, after he had completed a strenuous workout under coach Ivan Lendl’s watchful eye at the Delray Tennis Center. “Not everyone has the luxury of playing Davis Cup in the World Group (limited to the top 16 teams), so of course it’s unfair. I didn’t like the decision when it was made but it has never really come up for discussion in our player meetings because there has been so much else going on.”
Well, last week’s round of Davis Cup ties threw the kind of spotlight on the issue which is likely to make it a topic of conversation in the future.
As an example of why awarding points for Davis Cup is unfair, the differing fates of John Isner and Marcos Baghdatis provided one.
Isner, creating the biggest upset of the year, beat Roger Federer while helping the US defeat Switzerland in Fribourg and received 40 ATP ranking points for doing so. As a result of a new rule which comes into force next week, Isner will be able to use those points at Memphis. The points could have been used already but the Davis Cup was switched to a later date on the calendar this year and, as a result of other players around him dropping points, Isner climbed three places to a career-high ranking of No. 14.
Meanwhile Baghdatis was winning three matches for Cyprus in their 3-2 win over Morocco. But Baghdatis received no points and saw his ranking drop three places.
Why? Because the US is in the World Group while Cyprus is not and, without wishing to be unkind, that is something which is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. So, through no fault of his own, Baghdatis, a former Australian Open finalist, is penalized.
This particular problem could be rectified if the ITF agreed to award points for all Davis Cup ties irrespective of the group they were played in. However, the whole concept would still be unfair because players would still be reliant on the personal choice of their Davis Cup captain. They might not get picked.
Look at the decision Jim Courier is probably going to have to make when his squad travels to France for the quarterfinals in the first week of April. Andy Roddick should have regained his fitness and, hopefully, his form. So Courier will have to choose two from three — Roddick, Isner and Mardy Fish. The rankings are tight at the top and the man not chosen could lose out on a place in the top eight — a coveted position when it comes to seeding at Grand Slams.
It is all very well saying "That’s tough" because this is sport and every athlete is subjected to the whims of a selector. But that was precisely the glory of the ATP rankings system when it was devised under Cliff Drysdale’s presidency in 1973. It was immune from personal choice, opinion or whim. If you won tennis matches, your ranking went up. If you didn’t, it went down. And if your ranking was high enough, you got into the main draw. If it wasn’t, you didn’t.
That still holds true today but the purity of the system has been violated. Someone may not get into the draw at Indian Wells or Miami or even Wimbledon because his country is not big enough to be in the World Group while a rival happens to come from a stronger tennis nation. Or he has a Davis Cup captain who doesn’t like him.
In the old days, before 1973, players had to write letters to tournament directors, listing their achievements and beg to be included. Woe betide the player who hadn’t been polite enough to some demanding member of the staff the year before. Unless you were a ticket-selling star, you didn’t get invited back.
Although those days will never return, the ranking system was devised to put a stop to such behavior and it is wrong that even a smidgen of personal opinion, or just bad luck, has been allowed to creep back in so as to affect something that plays such a vital part in a player’s career.
Murray opted not to play for Britain in their Zonal Davis Cup tie against Slovakia, which they won, and would not have received any ranking points if he had.
“It’s not something I think about when I make a decision whether or not to play,” he said. “But that doesn’t alter my opinion. We had a young player, Dan Evans, who did really well and won both his singles but has a low ATP ranking. He really could have done with some points. But the system doesn’t allow for that. It needs to be looked at.”