Novak Djokovic has the No. 1 ranking, but Rafael Nadal has been superior in Grand Slam performances in the past year.
Roger Federer is ranked ahead of Stanislas Wawrinka, but he would gladly trade his Wimbledon runner-up plate and minor titles for Wawrinka's Australian Open and Monte Carlo trophies.
Does this mean that the No. 1 ranking is overrated or that major titles are underappreciated? Is this the design of the ATP’s own vested interest in promoting and inflating its own tournaments? After all, it must attract eyeballs and dollars to a year-round tour despite the independently run majors.
Whether or not this is entirely resolvable, the prestigious Grand Slam titles are underrepresented with their rankings points.
Points and Weights
The four Grand Slam venues (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open) are not run by the ATP. They are run by their own organizations, independent of each other and supported by more than a century of fame and tradition. Each of these majors requires two weeks to play and is worth 2,000 points to the winner, with the following distribution listed on ATPWorldTour.com.
The ATP mandates that all top players participate in nine Masters 1000 tournaments, excepting Monte Carlo. In order to sell their importance, the ATP needs the points to attract the players and fans during the intervals between the Grand Slam venues. Each of these tournaments requires one week to play and is worth 1,000 points to the winner, as noted in the source above.
Furthermore, the ATP has its Race to London, of which the winner can earn up to 1,500 points, its prime objective to showcase the No. 1 ranking.
What this means is that there are more points given out in the Masters 1000 tournaments than at the major venues. It’s a particularly generous award, especially considering that the Masters 1000 tournaments are only best-of-three sets as opposed to the best-of-five majors.
The Marcelo Rios Example
In March 1998, Marcelo Rios held the No. 1 ranking for four weeks despite a relatively poor showing in his previous Grand Slam results (French Open fourth round, Wimbledon fourth round, U.S. Open quarterfinals, Australian Open runner-up.) Rios had not won a Grand Slam title, nor would he ever do so in his career.
Meanwhile, Pete Sampras, Petr Korda, Patrick Rafter and Gustavo Kuerten held majors but not the No. 1 ranking.
In April, Rios would lose his title at Monte Carlo because he did not participate due to injury. In July, Sampras would defend his Wimbledon title, while Rios would fall in the first round, yet Rios grabbed the No. 1 ranking for two more weeks in August. Eventually, Sampras held him off for the year-end No. 1 ranking, his sixth (record-setting) straight time to end with this honor.
How did Rios do this? First, he was fortunate that there were no multi-Slam winners in a calendar year. There was more parity at the top. Second, in 1998 he capitalized by winning seven titles, including three (Masters 1000) Super 9 tournaments, even though he had only one runner-up at a major.
Two years prior, Sampras saw Thomas Muster hold the No. 1 ranking for six weeks early in 1996. While Muster held the French Open title and half a score of clay-court titles, Sampras held two Grand Slam titles. Did Muster deserve the No. 1 ranking?
In the WTA, Caroline Wozniacki is often labeled for being a No. 1 player who has still never won a major. She held No. 1 for 67 weeks and ended both 2010 and 2011 as the year-end No. 1.
Furthermore, the WTA saw Dinara Safina and Jelena Jankovic grab the No. 1 ranking without winning a major. Additionally, some tennis fans might remember that Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo attained No. 1 before they eventually won majors.
Now it’s 2014, and although the rankings calculations have changed a bit, the principle of a player capturing the No. 1 ranking on the strength of Masters 1000 tournaments has happened again, albeit with less fanfare or controversy.
Certainly, Novak Djokovic is a deserving champion who has proven himself with six career majors and 104 weeks at No. 1. Yet, his current return to No. 1 has come by winning only one major title (Wimbledon) and dominating five Masters 1000 tournaments (Shanghai, Paris, Indian Wells, Miami, Rome). He also won the WTF final in London.
Compare this to Nadal’s resume the past year, which includes two majors (2013 U.S. Open, 2014 French Open) and three Masters titles (Montreal, Cincinnati, Madrid).
The question is, should Djokovic be rewarded for greater performances in best-of-three tournaments that have half the weight of the Grand Slam titles?
Maybe, but maybe not.
Grand Slam Value
To the players and vast majority of sports fans, Grand Slam titles are the standard to judge tennis players. Players are best-remembered for winning even one major, or they are remembered for their best attempt at pursuing one.
For instance, few people know or care that Michael Chang won 34 career titles, but his 1989 French Open title was his pinnacle. Andres Gomez won 21 career titles, but tennis fans define him for his 1990 French Open victory over Andre Agassi.
How many non-majors did John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg win? How about Sampras and Agassi?
The non-majors are important to the promotion of tennis the way the regular season in team sports is important for their fans to become acquainted with their teams. Players also need minor tournaments for their earnings and for the competition to peak for majors.
But there’s no question that the majors are several times more important for player legacies, memories and career achievements. These are the playoffs or championship results that fans remember forever.
Unlike the quickly forgotten and more disposable second-tier tournaments, the majors are cherished like a prized work of art, a unique masterpiece that cannot be measured merely by dollars. Its aesthetic value is priceless.
Maybe Grand Slam titles should be worth another 50 percent, with the winner taking 3,000 points with each previous round 60 percent or 50 percent of that.
On the other hand, maybe the No. 1 ranking should be awarded to the player who does more than primarily shine in majors. Djokovic has shown the most consistency and energy to grind through a year of grueling tennis. This is what he is being rewarded for, and it’s an indication of his commitment to be healthy and play at a high level for all tournaments.
The majors will always be the dream of every tennis player. Is there any player who would not take one major over 10 other tournament titles? Ask Nadal if he would rather have his resume of the past year than Djokovic’s accomplishments.
And that’s the difficulty of deciding the No. 1 ranking with points and computers. The ATP needs plenty of points to matter in the second-tier tournaments, and no amount of points will truly show the value of the majors. Tennis calculated two sets of standards, and however imperfect, it may be the best possible compromise.