How Serena Williams lost her No. 1 ranking without playing a match
Serena Williams pulled out of this week’s Indian Wells tournament on Tuesday, a move that ends her six-week reign at No. 1 before it even began. Those six weeks appear to be the longest stretch a player has held, and then lost, the No. 1 ranking without playing a match. As a result of the bloodless coup, Angelique Kerber, who Serena dethroned with her victory at the Australian Open, will take over the top ranking amidst continued questions about the health, play and status of the all-time great.
“Sadly, I have to withdraw from Indian Wells and Miami Open,” Serena said in a statement. “I have not been able to train due to my knees.”
How did it all work? Given that the rankings are rolling from year-over-year, all the points from last year’s Indian Wells tournament get dropped upon the start of the tournament (though that’s not officially reflected in the rankings until the tournament ends). Serena drops 640 points earned at the 2016 tourney, where she lost in the final to Victoria Azarenka. Kerber lost in her opening round, which meant that she drops no points and had essentially overtaken Serena by about 250 points before they even hit the court. Short of an early Kerber exit or a Serena win, the No. 1 ranking was likely going to change hands anyway.
This was Serena’s seventh stint at No. 1, combining for 315 weeks, which ranks her No. 3 in history, 17 weeks behind Martina Navratilova and 62 weeks behind Steffi Graf. Given Serena’s limited schedule and advancing age, the No. 1 mark is one she’s unlikely to reach. Passing Martina is a possibility, but even if Serena were to retake the No. 1 ranking later this year (unlikely), any chance of passing Graf would mean Serena would have to stay at the top until she was 37. The soonest she could get back on court would be at the Charleston Open the first week of April (she’s not scheduled to play) or, more likely, until the European clay court season.
Amazingly, this six-week reign isn’t Serena’s shortest stint at No. 1 or even her second-shortest. In 2008, she made just her second appearance at the top of the rankings. (Yes, Serena was already 27 by the time she got back to No. 1 after reaching the pinnacle as a 20-year-old in 2002.) She stayed for just four weeks. One year later, Serena hit No. 1 for just two weeks. Even that’s not the quickest turn at the top: There have been 11 one-week appearances at No. 1 by various players.
Serena has only played Indian Wells five times in her 19 full years on Tour. She famously had a 13-year boycott of the tournament after an ugly, racially charged incident that occurred in 2001. Serena returned to the tournament in 2015, making the announcement in a moving, introspective column in Time. She made the semifinals in her first year back and then lost in that final against Azarenka in 2016.