Michael Pavitt

Freezing world rankings due to the COVID-19 pandemic was an sensible decision by governing bodies last year, as tournaments fell by the wayside. The trouble is restarting them effectively.

Tennis has had to think hard about the best way of resuming its ranking systems, with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) having the near impossible task of trying to ensure fairness for players.

The rankings normally operate on a 52-week basis, with the points earned at tournaments dropping off after the event is held the following year.

Due to the rankings being established to hum along to the rhythm of the typical tennis season, with tournaments consistently in the same places, the cancellations and rescheduling of events in 2020 threw a considerable spanner in the works.

After unfreezing rankings in August last year, the ATP and WTA both announced they would move to a "best of 24-month system" as part of adjustments, before easing back into the 52-week cycle in the future.

This would ensure that players who were unable to travel to compete in events which were held in 2020 would not lose their ranking points earned the previous year, offering stability to players in the circumstances.

Equally, this would mean the best result achieved by a player at either the 2020 or 2021 tournaments would be counted towards the rankings, with the points dropping off the system when the tournament is held next year.

Should an event not have taken place in 2020, such as Wimbledon, the points earned at the 2019 tournament will remain on the system for two years.

Alexander Zverev voiced his frustration with the world rankings earlier this month ©Getty Images
Alexander Zverev voiced his frustration with the world rankings earlier this month ©Getty Images

The ATP announced earlier this month that it would extend the "Best Of" logic through the first week of August in 2021. The organisation said this meant results achieved from events between March 4 to August 5 in 2019, that were not played in 2020, would be included on the rankings for a further year but weighted at half its normal value.

By contrast, the WTA announced on Thursday (March 25) that when players’ results for tournaments are set to drop off, they will do so at 100 per cent, rather than the 50 per cent operated by the ATP.

The adjustments have understandably had positives and negatives.

A key positive is that players competing in rescheduled tournaments in the later part of 2020 will not be negatively impacted. For example, points earned at the French Open will not be lost when the tournament is held in its usual June time slot this year.

The system has had downsides, however.

Germany’s Alexander Zverev was vocal in his criticism of the ranking system earlier this month, highlighting that he was ranked below Roger Federer, despite the Swiss star having been absent from the circuit for more than a year.

"The ranking doesn't really matter, especially with the system that we have now," Zverev was quoted as saying. "I should be top four, top five in the world right now in the normal ranking system. But the ranking system that we have now is a little bit absurd.

"I am the biggest fan of Roger Federer but he hasn't played in a year and he is ahead of me in the rankings. 

"I played a Grand Slam final, a Masters 1000 final, won two tournaments. Right now the ranking system is just so messed up that you don't need to pay attention to it."

The issue was again highlighted by fans amid controversy surrounding French player Benoît Paire, who is currently ranking 31st in the ATP rankings. 

The Frenchman has received criticism for recent comments suggesting he was content with receiving pay checks for first-round defeats at tournaments, amid unhappiness at the protocols in place on the circuit. Paire’s latest loss came in straight sets at the Miami Open where he had received bye into the second round. 

While many have sympathy for Paire’s troubles during the pandemic, such as being removed from the US Open draw after a reported false positive for COVID-19, others have suggested that the current ranking system has offered protection to a player who has shown limited effort in recent months.

By contrast, the players lower down the rankings are facing a tougher challenge to climb up the standings with others having the luxury of being able to fall back on previous achievements.

With the climb up the ATP and WTA rankings having become more challenging, it has had a knock-on effect on the seedings of tournaments.

Garbiñe Muguruza is second in the WTA Road to Shenzen standings but has seen only a minimal rise in her world ranking ©Getty Images
Garbiñe Muguruza is second in the WTA Road to Shenzen standings but has seen only a minimal rise in her world ranking ©Getty Images

Some have cited Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza as an example, with the two-time Grand Slam champion having earned a WTA title in Dubai this season, following a solid run at the Australian Open and appearances in finals in Doha and Melbourne.

Her run of form has her second on the 2021 season’s Road to Shenzhen standings behind Japan’s Naomi Osaka, who triumphed at the Australian Open. Yet Muguruza’s world ranking has moved only fractionally, with the Spaniard rising from 15th at the start of January to 13th.

As a result, tournaments could suffer from seeing in-form players facing higher-seeded opposition in the early stages of events.

For all her success this season, Muguruza will have to face fourth seed Sofia Kenin of the United States, Osaka and world number one Ashleigh Barty of Australia - or their conquerors - if she is to win the ongoing Miami Open.

Barty has remained top of the world rankings despite being absent from the WTA Tour for the vast majority of 2020. The Australian headed into the Miami Open knowing that her status was under threat, with the event marking one of the first competitions where the previous ranking points will start to drop off the system.

Should the world remain relatively stable over the coming months, the rankings should slowly right themselves as the tour moves back into its typical rhythm.