How the distorted ATP ranking also distorts the tennis tournaments

By Jürgen Fritz, Mon 31 Mai 2021, Cover picture: Roland Garros-Screenshot

In its rankings, the ATP has two players in the top eight who have not been able to keep up with the world’s best for months, and one who is miles away from the top five on clay. Nevertheless, at Roland Garros, the most important clay tournament in the world, he is seeded at 2, the other two at 4 and 8. Others, on the other hand, are massively disadvantaged throughout, but this distorts the entire tournament.

Players like Thiem, Federer, Goffin, Monfils and others are clearly privileged

Dominic Thiem has not played a single good tournament this year and has a match record of 9-8 in 2021. In the 2021 ATP Race, he was already only in 18th position before the French Open and will now probably drop several places further. Nevertheless, he was seeded No. 4 at the French Open according to the ATP ranking – he would normally only be No. 7 – and was knocked out in the first round (R128) yesterday. Medvedev and the soon-to-be 40-year-old Federer could soon follow him. It won’t be easy for them to get through even the first week either. Maybe they will suddenly find their form in Paris. That remains to be seen. But I doubt whether either of them will reach the second week or even the quarter-finals or semi-finals.

Daniil Medvedev is also struggling to win a single match on clay this year. Nevertheless, precisely because the ATP lists him at No. 2, he will also be seeded No. 2 at Roland Garros. And Roger Federer, whom I deeply admire and value as a player and as a person, has won just one match in the last 52 weeks (none on clay). Nevertheless, precisely because the ATP still has him in 8th position, he is also seeded 8th at the French Open.

The whole thing continues to the back. The 30-year-old David Goffin, who is only 30th in the JFB 52 Week Ranking, is seeded 13th. The 35-year-old Gael Monfils, who has a match record of 1-9 in the last 52 weeks, i.e. who has won only one match in a year, is seeded 14th, while others who are seeded far behind him or even not at all have won 20, 30, 40, even up to 50 (!) matches in the last 52 weeks.

Up-and-coming players are put at a massive disadvantage and the whole tournament is distorted as a result

In general, young and upcoming players who have been performing very well for many months, like the 19-year-old Jannik Sinner (in the JFB 52-week ranking on 10 for a long time, on the ATP only on 19), like Aslan Karatsev (50 matches won in the last 52 weeks!, in the JFB ranking on 9, on the ATP on 26) or 20-year-old Sebastian Korda (JFB: 25, ATP: 50), who has won two Challengers in the last twelve months and an ATP tournament on Saturday (!), or 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti (JFB: 33, ATP: 76) are massively disadvantaged.

Sebastian Korda, for example, meets a top player in round one or two of almost every tournament. Now in Roland Garros again. If the newly crowned tournament winner from Parma gets through the first round in Paris, he will meet Tsitsipas (5) in round two (R64). So the young or upcoming very good players are made extremely difficult to move up. In other seedings, Korda or Lorenzo Musetti, for example, would most likely be even further ahead than 25 and 33, but the ATP lists them so far back (at 50 and 76) that they are sometimes not even admitted directly to tournaments and first have to play a qualifying tournament before they even get into the main draw.

The situation is not quite as drastic, but still similar for 19-year-old Jannik Sinner, who usually meets Nadal very early on. The up-and-comer of the year Aslan Karatsev should also be mentioned, who meets top players far too early. At Roland Garros, Nadal, Sinner, Karatsev and Rublev, four players from the top ten of the JFB 52-week world rankings plus last year’s semi-finalist Schwartzman (11), are all in the second quarter. Carlos Alcaraz, who turned 18 this month, has even won four (!) Challenger tournaments in the last ten months and is already 38th in the JFB 52 Week Ranking. The ATP, however, only lists him at 97 and regularly sends him to the qualifiers first.

This means that the whole competition is also distorted by the distorted ATP ranking, as the seedings are also based on this ranking.

Generally, the rankings primarily reflect playing strength on hard court, so grass and clay tournaments should deviate a little from this in their seeding lists

The best tennis world ranking that currently exists is the JFB 52 Week Tennis World Ranking, but I can only use it up to position 30. Even up to that point, it is enormously time-consuming and work-intensive. I can’t possibly keep it up to 50, 100, 200 or even higher and update it accurately every week. But it does give a very good overview of the true ratios of at least the top 30 over the last 52 weeks.

The ATP, which is responsible for the seedings, should urgently (!) revise its ranking system. The tournament organisers should also consider whether, in the case of grass and clay tournaments, the seedings should not deviate at least a little from the normal 52-week ranking, as was done at Wimbledon for a long time, so that the results of the last 52 weeks, depending on whether the tournament is played on grass or clay, are counted twice on this particular surface and the results of the last 53 to 104 weeks on the respective surface are added with a factor of 0.5.

This is because the rankings primarily reflect the playing strength on hard court. 66 per cent of all major tournaments are played on this surface:

  • two of the four Grand Slam tournaments,
  • four out of five Olympic Games (once on grass),
  • the ATP Finals always,
  • meanwhile also all matches of the Davis Cup finals,
  • six of the nine Masters 1000 (three on clay, zero on grass)
  • the ATP Cup and
  • eight of the 13 ATP 500s (three on clay, two on grass).

Not even 24 per cent of the major tournaments are played on clay (even less this year because Rio was cancelled) and only a good 10 per cent on grass. It is absurd that Medvedev, who is certainly one of the best hard-court players in the world, but who has the greatest difficulty in succeeding on clay, is always seeded second or, if Djokovic is absent, even first on this surface.

Why is there still no Masters tournament on grass?

Another question is why there is still not a single C tournament (Master 1000) on grass and so few ATP 500s (D) on clay. Why, for example, was London-Queen’s Club or Halle not upgraded from D (ATP 500) to C (ATP 1000)? That could have been done a long time ago. These two great grass tournaments were even listed only as E events (ATP 250) for a long time. That means grass is undervalued in the ranking, Clay too. A world ranking is supposed to express the overall playing strength and not only that on hard court, respectively weighting it to 2/3, clay and grass together only to 1/3. Roger Federer, by the way, would probably have more than 28 Masters 1000 titles if there were at least one or two on grass.

Two of the four Grand Slam tournaments (A) on hard court plus the Olympics (B) plus the ATP Finals (B) plus the Davis Cup finals plus six of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments (C) plus the ATP Cup plus eight of the 13 ATP 500s (D) is simply an enormous number. For example, one could also consider playing the ATP Finals every year alternately on hard court, clay and grass (then Nadal would certainly not have a zero there). In addition, at least one of the nine Masters tournaments could be played on grass and at least one or two more ATP 500s on clay (four to five instead of only three).

There must be a switch back to the 52-week system as soon as possible

But above all, now that play has been resuming for more than nine, soon ten months since the pandemic break, the 52-week system must be reintroduced as quickly as possible and the new results of the last twelve months must count and not ancient results from two or even three years ago. The ATP wants to let results stand for 36 months, partly from 2019 to 2022!

This is also the reason why Djokovic cancelled several Masters 1000 tournaments, especially when he was defending champion (Paris-Bercy, Madrid). He knew that the old results would stand anyway. Why should he make an effort at all, if even if he won the tournament again, he wouldn’t get a single point more for it?

Basic, structural errors in the ATP Ranking

We have not even mentioned the fundamental structural error that we have seen for almost 50 years, since the undoubtedly very important and meritorious, indeed indispensable ATP ranking has been in existence, namely that the ATP either gives too little weight to those tournaments that it does not organise, but which are co-organised by the competing, much older ITF, either too low in weight – such as the four Grand Slam tournaments – or even not at all – such as the Olympics and the Davis Cup, the oldest and most traditional team competition in the world (since 1900), while the newly created team competition ATP Cup, which has no tradition whatsoever, is rated and included in its ranking. That is not right!

These structural mistakes were much worse in the past. A few decades ago, the ITF’s Grand Slam tournaments were in some cases hardly weighted higher by the ATP than its own highest-ranked ATP tournaments. Davis Cup results were sometimes rated, sometimes not. Likewise, results at the highly prestigious Olympic Games. Several times in past decades this was so blatantly distorting that the ATP itself named a player of the year who was not even No. 1 in its own ranking (1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1982, 1989) because it knew its ranking did not reflect the true circumstances. This has improved over the last 30 years. The biases are not as strong as they were in the 1970s and 1980s, but they are still there and should be further reduced.

It’s about more than the ATP, it’s about tennis and fairness

In the JFB Ranking, all these mistakes have been corrected, but I can only manage it up to position 30 at the most. That in itself is enormously costly. No system is perfect, of course, and due to the pandemic break, it has become totally difficult, basically impossible, to keep a one hundred percent fair ranking list. The ATP has certainly made an effort, but in the meantime play has been resumed almost ten months ago and it should therefore be switched to the 52-week system as soon as possible, and the structural errors that have existed for almost 50 years should also be corrected.

The ATP is therefore called upon to develop a fair and equitable system while transcending its own association interests. It is about more than the ATP, it is about tennis and fairness.


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