March 14, 2021

When Numbers Lie

There's been a lot of debate over how the ranking system in men's and women's tennis has worked post lockdown and since play resumed last April. I've long raised an eyebrow at Ashleigh Barty's continued presence at the top despite having played precious few events over the past year -- and, admittedly, I've been chasten when she does well at the ones she does enter.

And while I agree with the initial premise -- that players shouldn't be punished for doing the prudent thing by not traveling during a pandemic -- the ultimate system doesn't seem to have worked out exactly right -- after all, why should Marketa Vondrousova get to keep 2019 French Open final points when she did make the return trip in 2020 and lose in the first round?

But perhaps there's no better indication of flaws in the system than the case of Garbiñe Muguruza.

The 27-year-old Spaniard struggled through the back half of 2019, winning just one match after the French Open and dropping out of the top thirty for the first time since 2014. But she really turned things around to kick off last year, knocking out three top ten players to make the final at the Australian Open. That helped her climb back to #16 in the world, but despite a more-than-solid run, she's barely been able to budge in the rankings since.

And there's plenty of reason she should be higher. Here's a list of some of what Muguruza's accomplished this season alone: she got revenge for last year's loss in Melbourne, beating Sofia Kenin in straight sets at the Yarra Valley Classic; she was the only player to get a match point against Naomi Osaka at the first Major of the year, only barely losing to the eventual champion in the quarters; inexplicably unseeded last week in Doha, she survived a nail-biter against once-unstoppable Aryna Sabalenka on her way to the final; she repeated the feat this week in Dubai, and also scored wins over Iga Swiatek, Elise Mertens, and quickly-rising Barbora Krejcikova. And in her third final of the year, she was able to walk away with the title, her first since 2019 and her biggest in four years.

That gives her eighteen wins already this season, more than any player, man or woman, and puts her second only behind Osaka in the singles race. But for her efforts, she still won't crack the top ten on Monday -- seems strange when players like Bianca Andreescu and, yes, Ashleigh Barty, remain seemingly ensconced there.

Of course, things are slowly getting back to normal and those protected points will eventually start to be shed. And Muguruza will be more than ready to fill in the gaps when they do. After all, there's nothing more intimidating than someone playing well above her ranking. And this girl seems gunning for a return to the very top.

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