July 2, 2009

The Injustice of It All

A few months back I questioned a new system the ATP had adopted to score and rank its players, wondering whether tracking a trailing twelve-month score really reflected the current state of tennis.

So far, I'm not impressed.

For example Andy Murray who started the year with three impressive championships remained behind Novak Djokovic until mid-May, despite the fact that Nole suffered some big losses in Australia and a disappointing exit while trying to defend his title in Melbourne.

And there's another point I'm still not clear on -- perhaps someone can help. Rafael Nadal was the first player to qualify for the year-end ATP Championships, but one rule requires players to play in all four Grand Slams -- something Rafa failed to do when he pulled out of Wimbledon with a knee injury. Does he forfeit his spot even though he had been playing the best tennis on tour and almost swept the clay court season?

The problems also make their way into the women's side of things. Back in April we found out that Dinara Safina was going to take over the #1 spot from Serena Williams, the woman she'd lost to in Australia and who'd taken the trophy at Flushing Meadows just a few months before. I don't mean to say Dinara hasn't had a good year -- she won in Rome and Madrid and played in four other finals, including at Roland Garros. But she's never won a Slam while the two women ranked just below her have won three of the last four and share seventeen Majors between them.

So, yes, the ranking system has its issues, but they've never seemed so apparant as they have during this Wimbledon fortnight.

The Championships at the All England Club, more than any other Grand Slam, have the ability to seed players based on their strength on the surface, not their ranking. That allowed Ivo Karlovic, ranked thirty-sixth in the world, to command the twenty-second seed, and Marat Safin to go from #24 to #14. Maria Sharapova was clearly the biggest beneficiary as officials ignored her injury-addled #60 ranking and blessed her with the twenty-fourth seed.

But Dinara, who'd never made it past the third round here and lost in the quarters to Tamarine Tanasugarn at a warm-up tournament in the Netherlands, kept her top spot while five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams had to slog it out at #3.

The discrepancy was clear in today's semifinal match when Dinara was completely dominated by Venus. In less than one hour she won only a single game and twenty points in total. She whiffed sixteen unforced errors and looked nothing like the #1 player she's supposed to be. Even still, because she made the semis, she'll get 900 points and stay out of reach of both Serena and Venus, whomever wins (I believe -- I hate calculating these points).

You know who else gets 900 points?

Not-so-lucky loser Elena Dementieva, who gave an epic performance against the second-seeded Serena Williams -- someone she was not supposed to beat. That match, which lasted nearly three hours, was one that single-handedly revived the case for women's tennis. Both ladies were hitting hard, serving bombs, maintaining rallies, and being pushed way outside their comfort zones. Elena, who'd been struggling all spring, did something no one's been able to do this tournament -- she took a set away from Serena, and she even had a match point late in the third. Watching the last few games I was actually nervous -- seriously, from my desk in New York, thousands of miles away from the action, my heart was honestly pounding as I waited to see who would come out on top.

But because Elena wasn't able to convert on her opportunity she gets the same payday as Safina, who looked no more impressive in her first five matches than she did in her sixth. And what could've been a final match that any fan would pay top-dollar to see is relegated to the semis, played midday in the middle of the week.

It's always heart-wrenching when someone has to lose a match that was so well-fought, beginning to end. After such a long battle, it's a shame that both couldn't make it to the Saturday match. And it's an even bigger shame that there's no way to compensate the player who put on such a great show.

Who knows if they'll change the points system again and make it more fair. I doubt anything done will be terribly drastic.

But I can tell you that if I had control, the rankings on Monday would be much different than what's actually going to come out.

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