The New ATP Rankings Change: What It Means

Novak Djokovic is secure atop the ATP Rankings
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The ATP has shaken up its rankings points system as a way to transition out of the pandemic and, as anyone who has read their explanation of the changes will tell you, it’s complicated. But is it fair?

The announcement about rankings points was part of a package that includes raising prize money in steps, as well as other measures meant to keep professional tennis players afloat, while also attempting to deal with the reality of decreased revenue.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put a set of crashing brakes on sponsorship funds and ticket sales from fans, and no amount of complaining about prize money or lack of playing opportunities can change that. The money has dried up to a trickle for the time being.

What about the rankings? Much like stock options, rankings points represent a player’s potential for more earning. Those points get players into tournaments and get them noticed by sponsors.

The New ATP “Covid-19 Protected Ranking”

The old 52-week system made perfect sense. A player’s points for winning matches and tournaments dropped off exactly a year after earning them. But during the pandemic, both tours chose to freeze rankings temporarily.

That meant a player like Ash Barty, who was ranked world #1 when the pandemic hit, has remained in the top spot despite not playing for almost a full year. It rewarded Barty for being careful and locking down in her home country of Australia, the safe and socially conscious thing to do.

But it simultaneously disadvantaged players who jumped through tournaments’ quarantine hoops in order to play– and managed to succeed. It essentially kept those players in place, providing them with very little chance to climb the rankings regardless of how well they played.

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While the WTA has not changed a thing at the time of this article’s publication, the ATP has now announced a new system in which points earned at events from most of 2019 but that were not held in 2020 (think the Miami Open) will be counted at 50%– OR at 100% in 2021, whichever is better for the player. Starting with the Cincinnati Masters this August, the old system will be back, and by August of 2022, points will fall off like they always did, pre-pandemic.

The Fairness Factor

There will be dramas up and down the rankings as a result of this. Let’s start at the top. Novak Djokovic is sitting pretty in this system. He won a lot before the pandemic, and he’s won a lot during the pandemic. All his best points performances will be available to use. Any thought that Rafael Nadal or Daniil Medvedev would catch Djokovic anytime soon are pipe dreams.

And surprise, surprise: Roger Federer is still in decent shape because he can cling to half-full baskets of points gathered from 2019 as he embarks on his comeback in 2021. The ATP will benefit from Federer’s presence and, crucially, high seeding when he is playing on the tour once again.

But lower down the food chain, players trying to crack the top 30 in men’s tennis are – maybe not stuck because winning still helps – but unquestionably hampered. They are simply not able to climb as quickly as they did before. An example is 23-year-old American Reilly Opelka, who has played well in spots the past two years but remains outside the top 30. As he remarked seconds after losing his first round match 7-6 6-7 7-6 in Rotterdam, “Another week of losing money.”

On the women’s side, it doesn’t make much sense that Barty is still the #1, when Naomi Osaka has won the US Open and Australian Open in the past five months. Players such as Jennifer Brady and Jessica Pegula have succeeded at Grand Slams and notched meaningful victories, but their rankings do not reflect their successes. Brady is outside the top ten, and Pegula is all the way down at #44. In fact, even Iga Swiatek, who won the French Open in October, remains marooned outside the top ten.

But questions of fairness aside, tennis is being played again. Perhaps that’s the ultimate victory.

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