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Still railing on rankings

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Posted: Monday November 12, 2001 11:41 AM

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.

If Andre Agassi wins this week's Masters Cup, he'll be the oldest player to finish the year at No. 1. It's a tall order, but consider that the two ahead of him, Lleyton Hewitt and Gustavo Kuerten, have one indoor title between them. ... Ranked No. 74, sandwiched between the formidable Virginie Razzano and Janette Husarova, Anna Kournikova is in South Africa, playing Amanda Coetzer in a series of exhibitions. ... To celebrate a smashing rookie year, last week Andy Roddick moved out of his parents' house into his own pad. ... Sara Fornaciari, one of tennis' true characters, sold her charming Oklahoma City event to a Memphis promoter last week. Word is Memphis will try and host a mixed-gender tournament. ... The Tennis Channel has purchased the rights to more than a dozen men's and women's events, most of them held in the U.S. ... Wake Forest's Bea Bielik and Minnesota's Harsh Mankad captured singles titles Sunday at the Omni Hotels National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships at the Brookhaven Country Club. ... Best wishes to USTA p.r. guru Joe Favorito, who is leaving tennis to take a VP job with those hapless New York Knicks. ... Ultra-talented, ultra-enigmatic Patty Schnyder won her first title in three years last weekend, beating Henrietta Nagyova in the finals of the Pattaya City event. Schnyder dedicated the win to her cat Rudi, who had died during the tournament. ... Until a more permanent sponsor can be found to replace Ericsson, the Key Biscayne event will be known as the [YOUR AD GOES HERE] Open.

I was dreaming when I wrote this. Forgive me if I go astray ...

You have been critical of the tennis rankings, as have others. Is it possible that tennis could adopt something similar to golf's World Ranking? Golf's system is based on results over the last two years and uses average points per event, not total points. There is a minimum number of events, but I don't know what it is. Doesn't tennis' total-points system penalize those who don't play a lot (e.g., Venus Williams)?
—Ben, El Paso, Texas

Lots of you wrote in about the rankings conundrum in women's tennis. Kelly Price of Denver was more blunt than you were, Ben. An edited version of her screed: "We all criticize the rankings, but unless we can come up with a better system, we should all shut up." I wouldn't want to meet her in a dark alley, but she has a point. It's easy to point out the vagaries and counterintuitive results; it's far more difficult to devise a better mousetrap.

The rankings should reflect the merit of the players. But for the sport to thrive, players also need an incentive. I think most of us are in agreement that, in a vacuum, Venus Williams is the best player in tennis. But if she were to be rewarded with the top ranking while playing an average of only one event a month, tennis would suffer. The question is whether the sport suffers less when rankings don't correspond with common sense.

A few flawed suggestions:

  • Accord more weight to the Slams. I've heard rumors that the tour is considering imbuing Tier I events like Charleston, Rome, Moscow and the Canadian Open with more value. Bad idea. This will only exacerbate the problem. Ask any player whether she would rather win one Slam or a half-dozen Tier I titles and most would chose the former. The problem: Investing the Slams with even more significance weakens the value of run-of-the-mill tour stops and gives players even less incentive to enter the Amelia Island-type events.

  • Players get bonus points when they beat a highly ranked opponent; a "quality win," it's called. But how about introducing "penalty points" when top players lose consistently to lower-ranked colleagues? A string of bad defeats and they will eventually lose their spot, no matter how many events they play. Though harsh, such a system would have prevented Martina Hingis from retaining the top ranking even as she lost time and again.

  • Instead of requiring players to compete in a certain number of events (currently 17), base the rankings, as golf does, on average points per tournament. (Venus Williams, despite her sparing schedule, would be the top-ranked player under this format.) Then institute appearance fees, as the men's tour does, as an inducement for the players to compete frequently. In a sense, this is the free market at its best. The problems: a) Promoters, whose interests the tour purports to represent, would hate it; b) Management groups, already a blight on the game, would only have more power and influence; c) Invariably, the appearance bounty would exact a price on draw sizes and prize money to the detriment of players outside the top 20; d) Ugly accusations of tanking and questions of legitimacy arise when players are paid merely to show up.

    Will the media rail about Lindsey Davenport being No. 1 the same way they freaked out about Martina Hingis being No. 1. Seems Davenport hasn't won a Slam in two years as well or is it OK because Davenport's an American?
    —Harold, New York

    Your point is well taken, but I'll play Lucifer's advocate. First, Davenport immediately admitted that, on merit, she wasn't the top player in the sport, something Hingis never did. Second, Davenport only came into the top spot last week. Hingis retained her penthouse ranking even after she continued to lose. (The Chuckster is winless in her last 11 Slams and counting, while Davenport is merely 0-fer her last seven.) A few pratfalls at Grand Slams and, provided Davenport is still No. 1, rest assured the skeptics will emerge.

    Jack Kramer woodie or the upstart Wilson T2000? Having recently cleaned out my garage, I happened upon both of them. I must say, the Kramer still handles pretty well. Which do you like better?
    —Doug, Chicago

    No contest, Jack beats Jimbo in straight sets. You're not going to overpower anyone with a Jack Kramer model, but I've played with few rackets -- wood, metal, graphite, other -- with such exquisite feel.

    What are your thoughts on Belgian Fed Cup captain Ivo Van Aken's comments that the U.S. used fear of terrorism as an excuse to avoid playing on clay? Do you agree that the U.S. is at a disadvantage on that surface? I honestly believe the U.S.'s record in Fed Cup speaks for itself. Also, why would the U.S. fear playing on clay? I'd pick Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles and the Williamses on any surface against any team.
    —David Nieves, Bronx, N.Y.

    A few Fed Cup questions trickled in this week. First things first: A USTA source claims that, against captain Billie Jean King's objections, the U.S. pulled out of Fed Cup before the security support was released. The U.S., the source says, was upset that the event wasn't held on American soil and a game of bluff-calling ensued.

    But on balance, I still say Van Aken's remarks were in exceptionally bad taste. Even if he believed the U.S. was using the events of Sept. 11 as an "excuse," those are sentiments best left unexpressed. He mentioned that the U.S. team members were already in Europe for the year-end championships. But, as we discussed before, there is a big difference between competing abroad as an individual and as a member of an American team. I agree with you, too: Even if Davenport and Venus don't play, any combination of Seles and Serena, Capriati and Lisa Raymond in doubles makes for an awfully good team, regardless of surface.

    With the World Series just ending, I have a combination tennis/baseball question. Why is it that a pitcher needs a minimum of three days rest (and usually four) before he pitches again, while a tennis player can serve all day in a five-set match and come back and play again less than 24 hours later? Aren't the pitch and the serve similar motions with similar stresses on the arm? Plus, most pitchers don't throw much more than a 100 pitches an outing, while a tennis player may serve for upwards of five hours, in addition to hitting all the other shots. Are tennis players tougher or is pitching a baseball that much more stressful to the arm?
    —Jeff Trip, Winsted, Conn.

    Both. Tennis players, unquestionably, are tougher. Interesting point, though we're essentially comparing apples and oranges. The motions are similar but the big difference, obviously, is that in tennis, the racket is striking the ball (and absorbing a good deal of impact) while in baseball the arm has direct contact with the ball.

    If there are any exercise-science types out there, perhaps they can answer the question I've always had: How come pros seldom lose velocity on their serves as matches progress? Time and again, one sees players -- male and female -- bomb in their fastest serves in the waning games of a match.

    Is there an unwritten protocol in professional mixed doubles? Does a male player, like Max Mirnyi, try to hit the cover off the ball when serving to the female player as he does when serving to the male player?
    —R. Aubry, New York

    This is one reason mixed doubles is considered the funny cars of tennis, a light diversion devoid of real significance. The basic rule: It's uncool of the male to serve his hardest to the female or to direct a forceful body shot to her at net. One often sees a male serve, say, 125 mph to his male counterpart and take 10-15 miles an hour off when the female returns. All decorum, however, goes out the window when the match gets tight or a male faces a break point. Then every ball is directed at the woman.

    From your experience with tennis and the NBA, what is the motivation behind an older athlete (someone like Michael Chang) who continues to play despite meager results? Is it the hope beyond hope that he's still going to achieve what he once achieved? Is it the money? Or is it something else? That said, let me be the first to say that I don't agree with folks who implore athletes to retire. It seems to me that this is a decision an athlete must make. However, when an older athlete's game starts to slow down, you have to wonder what it is that keeps him going.
    —Scott G., Los Angeles

    Good points all. Sad as it is to watch Chang -- once the second-best player in the world -- struggle to beat the most marginal opposition, why begrudge the man his right to work? I don't understand this in the context of Michael Jordan either, but that situation especially stark. It's not like Chang is taking anyone's roster spot (a few wild cards notwithstanding).

    Why do athletes hang on when their skills begin to desert them? Some, like Jordan, are "action junkies" who have a narcotic dependence on competing. Others suffer delusions of grandeur and think they can make it back to where they once belonged. Still others, as Pete Sampras showed at the Open, correctly note that even in a state of decline, they can still hold their own on a given day.

    In some cases, though, as Nelly might say, "It must be the money." I am not saying he is motivated solely by financial concerns, but consider Chang. What with endorsement deals, clinics, exhibitions and appearance fees (particularly in Asia, where he is still wildly popular), Chang can still make some serious cake, even in a year like this, when he finished the year in 73rd place in the Champions Race.

    If your Taco Bell order was to go -- i.e., you're not going to be there to take advantage of the refills -- then you might order a large, if you wanted that much soda.
    —Chip Hatcher, Ann Arbor, Mich.

    A few of you made this astute point. I'll pass it on to Larry. Meanwhile, ponder this: How much more popular would tennis be if fans were rewarded with free chalupas, say, when a player won a set 6-0?

    I know that in the downtime between the end of the Masters Cup and the start of the Australian Open, questions may lag a bit. So here is my contribution to the cause: Can you name your top five Woody Allen movies?
    —Phil O'Donaghue, Florence, Mass.

    If you ask me, the Woodman has lost a little something on his fastball. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Small Time Crooks and Sweet and Lowdown all had their moments but were generally formulaic, wait-till-video flicks. Anyway, my votes:

    1. Crimes and Misdemeanors (one of the better movies ever made)
    2. Radio Days
    3. Annie Hall
    4. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex
    5. Hannah and Her Sisters

    Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim, author of Venus Envy: A Sensational Season Inside the Women's Tennis Tour, is a regular contributor to Click here to send him a question or comment.

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