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How a two-year ranking system would affect tennis

Kamakshi Tandon, ESPN.com
February 10, 2012
Rafael Nadal would still be world No. 1 based on a two-year ranking system © PA Photos

Rafael Nadal is pushing hard for the ATP to change its rankings formula by counting two years' worth of results instead of one, similar to the current golf system.

For a while now, Nadal has said the change would lengthen careers by allowing big names to play less often and better protecting injured players. The idea seems to have recently gained more traction. Many other players support the move, says Nadal, and though Roger Federer remains a prominent exception, there's even talk about the issue at an official level.

Now here's one more reason for Nadal to like the two-year system: It would mean he'd still be No. 1.

Say what? Yes, expanding the current rankings system to stretch over two years instead of one would mean Nadal would still lead Novak Djokovic, despite all his recent losses to the Serb. To get a glimpse of what the idea might look like in practice, a list was obtained for this story calculating what last week's rankings would have been under a two-year system. It uses the ATP's current rankings formula and applies it to the past year and also the year before that, showing what the rankings would look like if there were no tweaks to the system in between.

What's more, it looks like Djokovic would have yet to be No. 1 at any time. Nadal would have maintained his hold on the top spot all of last year and would still have been No. 1 even after losing his seventh final in a row to Djokovic at the Australian Open a couple of weeks ago. That may not make much sense if thinking back over the past year, but it does when looking at the past two years. Currently, Djokovic holds three Slams and five Masters tournaments while Nadal has one Slam and one nonmandatory Masters, Monte Carlo. But over the past two years, both Nadal and Djokovic have won four Slams each, and Nadal has four Masters titles and five Masters finals (including the World Tour Finals) against Djokovic's five Masters victories. Put all that together and out comes a new - or rather, old - No. 1.

But with most of Nadal's wins coming in 2010 and Djokovic currently dominating the tour, there's little debate about who deserves to be considered the best player right now. And the best player label has come to be seen as almost synonymous with the No. 1 ranking. When the two don't match, as recent history on the WTA shows, it's not pretty.

So is Nadal just looking out for No. 1? It's unlikely his support of a two-year system is merely self-serving. Remember, he would have had to wait a lot longer to get to No. 1 himself in the wake of Federer's years of dominance. And even though it would have extended his time there last year, continuing to push for it now doesn't really benefit him. Under a two-year system, he would be facing considerably more pressure this season because he would have to defend all the wins he recorded during 2010, leaving him little chance of catching up to Djokovic in the months ahead. Instead, Nadal says, the tour as a whole would benefit from having players around for longer so they can build up rivalries like the current big four of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray are doing. So how does the two-year system do in achieving Nadal's declared objectives? The numbers are mixed.

It certainly does seem to give injured players more of a buffer. Robin Soderling, who has been out with mononucleosis and dropped to No. 14 in the regular rankings, would still be up at No. 7. Andy Roddick, despite his continuing spate of injuries, would be at No. 9 instead of No. 19, and Sam Querrey No. 31 instead of No. 89. David Nalbandian would be at No. 39 instead of No. 86.

But what happens once injured players start trying to make their way back?

Their climb looks a lot longer. The most obvious example is former U.S. Open champ Juan Martin del Potro, now more than a year into his road back from wrist surgery. He would be at No. 27 instead of No. 10, which is bad news for him and the high seeds, who would stand to meet him in earlier rounds.

There's also Kei Nishikori, who has rebounded from back troubles but would still be No. 34 instead of No. 20. That lends weight to critics who have argued that existing injury-protected rankings rules do a better job of cushioning the pros from this problem.

How the two-year rankings would look
(Current ranking in brackets)

  • 1. Rafael Nadal (2)
  • 2. Novak Djokovic (1)
  • 3. Roger Federer (3)
  • 4. Andy Murray (4)
  • 5. David Ferrer (5)
  • 6. Tomas Berdych (7)
  • 7. Robin Soderling (14)
  • 8. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (6)
  • 9. Andy Roddick (19)
  • 10. Mardy Fish (8)

More questionable is the two-year system's tendency to support players whose struggles are due to form rather than injuries. There's Fernando Verdasco, who would be up at No. 11 instead of No. 24; Marcos Baghdatis at No. 30 instead of No. 45, despite being more famous for his racket-smashing than his results these days; and finally, Ernests Gulbis, who would be sitting at No. 40 instead of No. 86.

Should these talented head cases be cut a bit of a break, or do they richly deserve their lowly squandered rankings? The two-year system would indeed make the rankings less volatile, keeping the familiar faces around for longer, even if they didn't play as much or as well. But opinion could be divided on when it becomes time for them to give way to someone who has been posting better results.

For similar reasons, the biggest knock against the two-year system has been that it slows the climb of up-and-comers. Federer cited this as a major reason for opposing the change, and the numbers bear this out. The two biggest young breakouts of the past year are both significantly lower in the two-year rankings -- exactly 20 spots for Milos Raonic, who would be at No. 48 instead of No. 28, and more than 30 spots for Bernard Tomic, who would come in at No. 67 instead of his current No. 34.

Generally, it's not like the two-year system produces completely wild results. Even the current rankings system throws up various anomalies from time to time. The central problem is the lag between performance and ranking. Seeing the two rankings side by side shows how hard it would be for a tennis community, trained to think in 52-week rotations, to adjust to going back two years. Some feel even now the rankings don't always reflect changed perceptions quickly enough -- hence the ATP's hare-brained attempt to switch to a week-by-week "Race" several years ago.

Look at last summer, when some wondered why Djokovic didn't become No. 1 straight after winning Wimbledon. Now imagine the uproar if the Serb were still waiting. For all the reasons Nadal and his fellow supporters argue for changing the system, they might find it a lot harder to explain the results.

This article was originally published on ESPN.com

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