COMMENTARY | Victoria Azarenka's three-set win over Serena Williams in the Qatar Open final Feb. 17 provided some high-profile insight into the quirky and often baffling WTA and ATP ranking systems that purport much and deliver little in the way of objective measurement of performance.
Before the match even started, Williams was to become the oldest No. 1-ranked woman ever at the age of 31, having beaten Petra Kvitova on Feb. 15 in the semis to secure the necessary points. And so Azarenka, former No. 1 and winner of the year's first major, could only take solace in chalking up her second career win over Williams and dismissing her from the winner's circle on the heels of Williams' ranking coup.
Indeed, much of the pre-tournament hype focused on the availability of the top ranking at a tournament stacked with nine of the top 10 players in the world. Williams entered the tournament in the driver's seat, needing to reach only the semis to dethrone Victoria Azarenka, who needed a Williams loss in the quarters or worse paired with a run to the finals to safeguard her place on top. After Williams' semifinal victory, Nike wasted no time cashing in on her achievement, posting this promotional photo on Twitter.
With all of the hype, the No. 1 ranking clearly matters to top players, right?
Well, let's take a step back before answering that question. Players pay lip service to the top billing throughout the season, citing it as a validation of their performance. One needs only to read press clippings after a changing of the guard to see that these rankings matter. But how much? The answer is complicated.
Williams was asked about becoming the world's oldest No. 1 after dismissing Urszula Radwanska in blowout fashion Feb. 14 to reach the quarters, and said she approaches reclaiming the title with alacrity.
"It's awesome," Williams said. "Since I didn't do it the youngest, I'll do it the oldest."
While the novelty of becoming the oldest top-ranked player means a lot to Williams, quotes from her past indicate an ambivalent attitude toward the WTA ranking system, which was reworked in 2006 to exclude bonus points for beating highly ranked players (this revamped system hurt Williams' final ranking in 2012 when she finished third). Prior to Doha, Williams sounded dismissive about the possibility of ripping the No. 1 spot from Azarenka.
"I think it will be great," Williams said of reaching No. 1. "I think it will be a great feeling. I obviously want it, but it's not the only thing I want, so if it happens, great. If not, I won't miss anything, I don't think."
Williams' ambivalence echoes the pre-tournament sentiment of Azarenka, who called the No. 1 ranking "extra motivation," stressing that playing quality tennis in an age of increasing competitiveness is what drives her. Similarly, Caroline Wozniacki, who held the No. 1 title for a combined 67 weeks from October 2010 to January 2012, has been dogged by questions about when she'll win a major to justify her lengthy stay at No. 1.
Her father, Piotr, understood the importance of bolstering Wozniacki's ranking with a major win in January 2011.
"It takes only one Grand Slam, and Caroline is a legend," he said. "So today, we're looking at history. How many players were two years at No. 1?"
Players' ambivalence toward the ranking system seems to stem from two characteristics that cheapen its importance: its somewhat arbitrary point system and its impermanence. While a top-10 ranking guarantees players favorable draws in tournaments and a spot in the year-end WTA Championships -- which carries a prize pool of a cool $4.9 million -- in reality, the top ranking matters more in the way of endorsement deals and publicity (see above) than tangible results (trophies) by which players' legacies are defined. Rankings are fleeting, subjectively formulated metrics that can't provide the legacy-defining prowess of running through the best players in the world to win a Grand Slam.
An apt analogy here is to college football's much-maligned BCS ranking system that purports to pair the nation's two best teams in the BCS national championship game. Much like the WTA and ATP rankings, the BCS rates teams on their win-loss records, along with a handful of other factors, to supposedly arrive at an objectively chosen national championship game. Just as one can make a strong case that Notre Dame, the BCS's No. 1 team, had no business playing Alabama in New Orleans, pundits were nearly unanimous in their assessment of Williams, the WTA's No. 3-ranked player, as the best tennis player in the world in 2012.
Perhaps the biggest embarrassment to the ATP ranking system came Monday when Andy Roddick, who retired following the 2012 US Open in August, rose two spots from No. 42 to 40 in the world while playing golf and attending fundraisers.
The upshot is that once a player reaches the top 25 (and one can debate the cutoff point for national relevance) rankings are more hype than substance. As a snapshot of a player's level of tennis, the system works just fine and is absolutely necessary to facilitate fair seedings at tournaments. However, computer rankings will never compete with waving to the crowd, signing the camera, and holding a trophy at the net after winning a championship point.
Tepid dismissals of rankings aside, Williams' ascent to No. 1 at the age of 31 is definitely something special. While Roger Federer, also 31, has seen his dominance wane, a healthy Williams is still the legitimate No. 1, best player in the world. And despite downplaying the the importance of climbing back on top of the rankings in her 30s, a teary-eyed Serena sounded like a player for whom the top ranking certainly counts for something after storming back to take down Kvitova.
"I never thought I would be here again," she said. "I've been through so much, and I just never thought I'd be here so thank you, Jehovah, for giving me another chance."
Chris Patch is a blogger, media content manager, and former beat writer for high-school and college tennis. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisPatch83.
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