Caroline Wozniacki won the fifth-most important title in women’s tennis on Sunday, capping off a year in which she reached 10 finals (2-8), led the tour in wins (60) and top-10 wins (14). But she woke up Monday morning ranked No. 3 in the world for 2017 and couldn’t be blamed if she felt a little cheated.
The prized year-end No. 1 ranking landed in the hands of Simona Halep, who won just one tournament — Madrid — in 2017. It’s was a big one, but nothing like the WTA Finals. Halep had a losing record (5-6) against top-10 players, had 13 fewer wins overall and lost to Wozniacki both times they met.
Garbine Muguruza, ranked No. 2, won Wimbledon. But she took just one other title, won 13 fewer matches than Wozniacki, finished 4-6 against Top 10 opponents and lost both times she played the consistent Dane.
These women aren’t to blame for where they wound up in the rankings; all they did was go out and operate within the system. The unusually competitive nature of this year also helps explain some of these anomalies.
But since the inception of the computerized rankings, there has been a running battle between those who think it they ought to emphasize consistency and those who believe they ought to emphasize performance at the biggest events and against top opponents. This year, they seemed to emphasize neither. Do they need to be fixed?
“The emphasis should be on the Slams,” Craig Kardon told ESPN.com. Kardon has coached numerous players, including Martina Navratilova and Coco Vandeweghe. “Doing well on the tour should count too, but look at some Slam champs and how little they play. They’re the big stars and they’re at a disadvantage. Simplify it, give more points for the Slams. Besides, people see them as more important.”
Serena Williams won the Australian Open, then promptly left the game for the rest of the year for her pregnancy and the birth of her first child. It’s a special case, yet as age and the demands of an ultrasuccessful career take their toll, the biggest stars in the game want to play less.
The WTA wants players to support the tour and take part in its branded events (the Grand Slams, while the most important in the game, belong to the ITF). That helps explain the WTA’s reluctance to give the Grand Slams too much weight in the rankings. Make the rankings too Slam-centric and soon more and more top players will be finding ways to skip smaller tour events, the lifeblood of the WTA.
Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, is sympathetic to the WTA’s position. But he still thinks the tour weighs its own events too heavily.
“In 2012, when I started working with Serena after Roland Garros, she won Wimbledon,” Mouratoglou told ESPN.com in an email. “Then she won the gold medal at the Olympics, the US Open and the year-end WTA Championships. At the end of the year, she was ranked No. 3.”
While one Williams might have been punished for not playing enough, this year the other Williams arguably hasn’t been rewarded adequately for her consistency throughout the year’s biggest events. Venus Williams, at the age of 37, won 23 total matches at the Big 5 (Grand Slams and WTA Finals), five more than the next best, Muguruza. Halep won barely half as many (13).
Venus ends the year ranked No. 5, despite having appeared in three of the Big 5 finals (Australian Open, Wimbledon, WTA Finals). She didn’t win a tournament, but she only played in 16 (including the WTA Finals), while others in the Top 10 played in as many as 25.
Venus’ strong play in the big events is praiseworthy. But is it overshadowed by her loss in the Wimbledon final to Muguruza?
In a recent WTA podcast, Navratilova said that finishing the year on top was a greater achievement than winning a major because of the consistency required: “To be No. 1, you have to be better than everybody else; to win a Slam, you just have to be better than seven players.”
Yet some also feel that nobody should finish No. 1 without having won a major. As Mouratoglou said, “No player should become world No. 1 without winning a Grand Slam in the year. If it happens, it is not relevant.”
Halep is the seventh woman to reach the top ranking without having won a major and the third to take year-end No. 1 honors (Jelena Jankovic in 2008 and Wozniacki in 2010 and 2011 are the others).
The most obvious way to halt this trend is to award more points to the winner of a Grand Slam event, but it might be even more valuable to award a higher number of rankings points round-by-round at the majors. That would have helped Venus Williams this year and hurt Halep, who failed to win a match at two of the four majors (Australian and US Opens). It seems fair, because the reward represents both consistency and success at big events. It also would have helped Muguruza, the Wimbledon champ and year-end No. 2, who came up a mere 30 rankings points (what making the third round of Grand Slam qualifying is worth) shy of Halep.
Bonus points, once a staple in the ATP rankings, are another option. They would be awarded for wins over highly ranked opponents. At Wimbledon, Roger Federer recalled how he played Pat Rafter in the first round of the French Open in 1999 for double the rankings points and with 45 extra points on offer because Rafter was ranked between Nos. 2 and 5. Federer, just 17 at the time, lost.
“That bonus points thing gets a little complicated,” Kamau Murray, coach of Sloane Stephens, told ESPN.com. “There’s so much going on in a player’s mind. Defending points, getting back to the quarters, ranking position. It would be counterproductive to give them something else to have to calculate, like bonus points. My philosophy is, just show up and win seven in a row.”
Two of the women who were able to do that, Serena Williams (No. 21) and Stephens (No. 13), were nowhere near No. 1 by year’s end. Another, Jelena Ostapenko, barely qualified for the WTA Finals. Muguruza finished No. 2, but she probably wouldn’t swap her Wimbledon title for Halep’s year-end No. 1 or Wozniacki’s overall record. Because at the end of the day, the one thing all the top players agree upon is that their main ambition is to win Grand Slams.
Perhaps that ought to figure into the calculus, as well.