The Case for the Race

Last week, Peter Bodo argued in favor of giving the ATP year-to-date “Race to London” more weight over the traditional rolling 52-week ranking.  It’s a relevant point right now, when Roger Federer leads in the 52-week tally, but Novak Djokovic dominates in the year-to-date numbers.

In other words, Fed is racking up more records at #1 while Djokovic will almost certainly go in the books as the top player of 2012.  Bodo doesn’t go far enough: The old-fashioned rankings are weird, confusing, and–why stop there?–bad for tennis.

In most of the world’s most popular sports, everybody starts the year with a clean slate.  Imagine if a baseball team opened their schedule having to “defend” their previous year’s April winning streak.  Or if your favorite football team started the season seventh in their division.  This is essentially what happens when the ATP heads to Australia in January, altering rankings only when players do something different than what they accomplished last year.

Not only does this make it hard too root for underdogs in tennis, it makes it hard for the underdogs themselves.  You may not pity Bernard Tomic, but he surely spoke for many mid-pack players when he spoke about the mental challenge of defending points, not just beating world-class tennis players.  In other sports, hope springs eternal.  In tennis, it’s an immense struggle to crack the top 20 for a single week.

The greatest advantage of the Race is that it is so easy to understand.  Tomas Berdych reached the semifinals last week, so he gets 360 points.  Simple as that.  No comparison to last year’s totals, no concern about whether points are going on or coming off at a stagger from last year because of the Olympics, and–blessedly–nary a mention of zero-pointers.  Tennis rankings will always be more than simply incrementing the win column, but this is pretty close.

Bodo cites the unpredictability of the turn-of-the-century Australian Open as a reason why the Race didn’t catch on.  It doesn’t make sense to have Petr Korda atop much of anything, right?  In fact, that’s the beauty of it.  The 52-week rankings simply entrench the Big Four in our minds, while an emphasis on the race would make us think twice the next time a Korda, or a Marcos Baghdatis, or a Marin Cilic, makes a January splash.  Fans are smart enough to realize that leading the rankings early in the season isn’t the same as finishing at the top.

Some version of the 52-week ranking system will never go away, and that’s how it should be.  It’s purpose is to rate players–for seeding, and even more importantly, for tournament entry.  As I’ve written at length, it’s not a very good system for that purpose.  If we focused on the Race instead, the tournament entry methodology could become much more sophisticated and do a better job of putting the best players on court every week.

With its increasing focus on qualification for the Tour Finals, the ATP has taken some big steps toward presenting tennis as a high-stakes, year-long season, not merely a disjointed mishmash of events competing for attention.  Highlighting the Race rankings would make for much more spectator enjoyment.  It might even open the door to more important discussions of the chaotic tour schedule, eventually offering fans a coherent tennis season to follow every week.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Case for the Race

  1. Pawn_pt

    Unfortunately, I don’t see the current system changing! It clearly gives an edge to the top players, and besides, its not even good enough to rank players properly, due to the differences in surfaces, etc…

  2. Interesting idea here: 1) If the ATP didn’t change the current system, but merely talked up the Race more, made it more accessible & fan-relevant, etc. this might pave the way to 2) eventually changing the system so that the Race was what got the real publicity & fan attention, and the rankings system became merely a device for seeding tourneys. Could it work? I’d be curious as to the history involved. I suspect there’s more keeping the current system in place than Bodo wrote about.

    • On the last point, you’re probably right — never underestimate the entrenchment of anything in tennis.

      I don’t know about anything sinister, but certainly there’s lots of history (and history-related news/publicity) related to the rankings, such as the hullaballoo about Fed reaching 300 weeks at #1. The other sports I compare tennis to don’t really have records for “days in first place,” and it’s true that ranking records have earned plenty of publicity for the ATP. And there is some appeal in the historic element of “can Nadal/Djokovic/Murray finally knock of the GOAT?” that wouldn’t be there if the Aussie Open winner were the most-publicized #1 for a few months of the year.

      And maybe the ATP’s right, at least in the short term. I somewhat relatedly opined ( http://heavytopspin.com/2012/03/22/why-the-atp-is-more-popular-than-the-wta/ ) that the ATP is more popular than the WTA because of the stability at the top, and the 52-week rankings emphasize that continuity more than race rankings would. But that only works when people love at least some of the guys at the top — in the long term, men’s tennis would probably be better off if there were more fans who were passionate about guys (a) outside the top 4, or 10, and (b) under the age of 25.

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