Three Simple Ways to Improve the ATP Ranking System

Rafael Nadal‘s two-year ranking system would favor a few veterans at the expense of everyone else.  My algorithm is too complex for players and fans to use on a weekly basis.  But there is always an undercurrent of dissatisfaction over the current system.

The rankings serve two main purposes, each of which we must keep in mind as we think through a better system:

  • Entertainment. The fans want to know who’s number one.  No system will ever be perfect, but if the ranking system told us that Nadal outranked Djokovic despite losing to him several times in a row, the system would lose credibility.
  • Tournament entry. Rankings determine who gets direct entry into tournaments.  A biased ranking system would keep stronger players out of tournaments while letting in lesser players.

A system that is good for one of these purposes is generally good for the other.  In an ideal world, the rankings would show us who is playing the best right now, carefully defining “right now” to avoid an unnecessary focus on current hot streaks.  Another way to look at is that the rankings should be as predictive as possible.  If underdogs are constantly winning, that doesn’t mean tennis is a sport full of triumphant underdogs, it means we’re ranking players incorrectly!

The current system isn’t that bad.  There are three main problems, however:

  1. Last week is equal to last year.  The winner in Miami this week will gain 1000 points.  Those 1000 points will be counted in his ranking next week, in six months, and in 51 weeks. In 53 weeks, though, he’ll have zero points.  If we’re trying to measure how good he is, a tournament 51 weeks ago isn’t nearly as informative as his tournament last week.  And if we insist on using his result from 51 weeks ago, why not his result from 53 weeks ago?
  2. Surfaces are interchangeable.  Milos Raonic won a slew of matches on indoor courts last spring, which earned him a seed at the French Open.  Now, I love Milos, but did he really deserve a seed at the French, despite virtually no professional experience on clay?  Performance on one surface translates to other surfaces to some extent, but (obviously!) all surfaces are not created equal.
  3. All opponents are equal.  In the Miami third round, Andy Roddick beat Roger Federer … then lost.  He’ll get 90 points. Kei Nishikori beat Lukas Rosol … then lost. These sorts of differences sometimes even out over time, but must we trust that they will?  Roddick’s achievement this week is much more impressive than Nishikori’s, and should be treated as such.

We can fix all of these problems with simple arithmetic, making tweaks to the system that any player or fan can understand.

In these solutions, the exact details don’t matter.  The most important thing is simply to acknowledge that not all matches are equal.

  1. Last week is worth more than last year.  In my system, last week is worth a little bit more than the week before, which is worth a little bit more than the week before that, and so on.  Here’s a simple way to incorporate that into the ATP system: After four months, tournaments are worth only 80% of their original points.  After eight months, tournaments are worth only 60% of their original points.  That way, the drop off is more gradual, and Indian Wells is worth more than, say, the 2011 Rome Masters.  If Nadal still wants two years, this can easily be extended to cover two years of results–after a year, 45%; after 16 months, 30%, after 20 months, 15%.  Now everybody’s happy!
  2. Separate surfaces, separate rankings.  There will always–and should always–be a single most important ranking list, encompassing all surfaces.  But for tournament entry, why not do better?  For example, create a clay list by doubling the point value of all clay tournaments and leaving the others alone.  David Ferrer and Carlos Berlocq will rise; John Isner and Kevin Anderson will fall.  Any tennis fan knows this happens, so tournaments should determine entry this way, as well.  After all, Wimbledon has long used this sort of approach for seeding, if not for direct entry.
  3. Bonus points for beating top players.  The WTA used to do this, and it’s the least straightforward of my suggestions.  It’s so important, though, that a little complexity is worth a lot.  Let’s say 100 points for a win over anyone in the top 3; 75 points for beating anyone ranked 4, 5, or 6; 50 points for a win over anyone else in the top 10, 30 points for beating anyone ranked 11-15, and 10 points for a win over anyone ranked 16-20.  Mega-upsets like those scored lately by Isner, Roddick, and Grigor Dimitrov tell us something important, and the rankings should listen.
This is all stuff you can do on a calculator–nothing is more complex than the rules governing protected rankings or zero-pointers.  Young players will see their rankings rise more quickly once they begin beating the top guys.   All players will get into tournaments (and earn seeds) on surfaces where they have had more success .  And the fans will have a more accurate ranking system both to rely upon and to fuel arguments about which players are really better.

12 thoughts on “Three Simple Ways to Improve the ATP Ranking System”

  1. In theory, as a fan I like all of it. I’m curious, though, how such changes would do politically. Not that anyone is proposing any changes within the ATP (God forbid), but still, how might these ideas fare?

    Idea #1, drop-off in value of older wins: Nadal would not be happy with this. But maybe players on the rise would like the idea. GIven the nature of player leadership skewing toward the established & the elite, we’d probably see a conservative response here, i.e. “no,” despite the idea being pretty sensible and straightforward.

    Idea #2, tourneys seeding by surface result lists rather than an overall list: Hard for anyone to object, I should think. My foggy memory is that Wimbledon counts grass results more heavily anyway in doing their seeding. The only flaw here that I can see is that surface speed doesn’t seem as consistently skewed towards clay > slow, grass > fast as it used to, so the effect might not be as pronounced as in decades past. But still, this seems like a fan-friendly, tennis-friendly idea. And maybe it would actually encourage a reversion to historically appropriate surface speeds, especially by RG and W.

    Idea #3, bonus points for wins against top players: Better ranking accuracy aside, in theory this might also be a nifty marketing gimmick. But I’d worry that the bonuses would get forgotten in the shuffle – e.g. that few would remember, X many months later, that Roddick got an extra 100 points for beating Fed. Maybe there would be some way to spotlight bonus wins over time on the ATP web site? I’m curious to know how well this idea worked for the WTA and whether it was dropped more or less by accident from their ranking system, or on purpose.

    And I’d certainly be interested in seeing a simulation of this over the course of an imaginary year’s time. I can imagine though that since seedings would be affected, there’s no real way to do a mock run-through with much meaning. Even so it’s nice food for thought.

    1. Yep, agreed on most points here. As you say, the conservatism of the leadership probably dooms #1. If some form of #3 were adopted, that would solve some of the problem for younger players — Dimitrov would get a bunch of points for beating Berdych, for instance.

      On #3, I wonder if that’s the case. No matter what the ranking algorithm takes into account, fans will say some version of “He’s number X, but that doesn’t take into account that he did/is Y.” Aside from things like injuries and streakiness, I’d say the most popular variant of that is, “Nalbandian is out of the top 50, but remember he’s the only guy to beat the top three in a single tournament.” People are more likely to remember the big upsets than they are, say, who got 150 points for reaching the final of Munich last year.

      I hope I’ll have some time this weekend to do some kind of simulation. I’d be interested to see the results as well.

  2. Didn’t the ATP used to have bonus points too, prior to 2000 or so?

    As I understand it, the whole reason they (and later the WTA) dropped it was that they wanted the ranking system to be as simple as possible for PR purposes, so that casual fans could understand it. That’s also why the “Race Rankings” were pushed so hard, iirc. So in practical terms, I’m guessing wholesight is correct and none of this would never fly politically?

    I fell like the solution would be that tournaments use a more accurate system for entry and seeding (akin to NCAA basketball; RPI is the “ranking,” but the committee can do in theory do whatever they want, although I’d prefer it was still deterministic for tennis), but keep the existing system for the official rankings. Serious fans who understood the distinction could look at the various ‘entry’ rankings instead. So long as it didn’t affect seeding for the top 8 or so, I’m guessing casual fans wouldn’t even notice.

    I really, really like #1—the top 3 have enough of a stranglehold on their spots as it is; Nadal can just take his millions and be sad about it :).

    As far as #3 is concerned, I suppose there could be an argument for fairness, that somebody who specializes in upsets, but never makes it deep in tournaments shouldn’t be rewarded for it. I think they should, but some people get really angry about this—I think there was a huge fight amongst some fans when they got rid of the quality points in the WTA as to whether it was being done to favor (I believe) Sharapova or not. This probably says more about Sharapova’s fanbase than anything else, but still…

    1. It’s probably true that none of it would fly politically, but it’s frustrating to see what flies and what doesn’t. As I mention at the end of the post, PRs and zero-pointers are two things that probably aren’t going anywhere, but they can be far more confusing to fans than anything I’m proposing. And don’t get me started on awarding points for things like Davis Cup and even the World Tour Finals. Really, somebody just made up some numbers.

      You’re right, looks like ATP used to do quality points too. For me, it isn’t so much rewarding people for their upset skill, it’s about evening the playing field for unseeded players. At a slam, a seed gets two ‘easy’ opponents … a nonseed is very likely to have to score an upset to the same number of 3rd round points.

      I like your idea of having one very simple set of rankings for the public and another to determine entry/seeding. The race is probably good for the simple set — its purpose is clear, and since only the top eight matter, issues like quality points and surface differences aren’t so important.

  3. Hi jeff,
    Nice post, as always… just a question,

    Do you know how today’s ranking would look like if you use your proposed method??

  4. Interesting. I like the idea of the points going down slowly over time instead of lasting for a whole year. The problem is that Andy Roddick is still 50th in the world. I didn’t like the idea of that when you beat a big seed you get points. When you do beat a big seed you already get popular like Lukus Rosol beating Nadal at Wimbledon. Also the winner gets sponsors and people are willing to bet on you. Getting bonus points on your rankings would be too much but I loved the post. Thanks Jeff

  5. Great ideas for revised system, there is definatly something wrong when the top ten players hasn’t changed for two years…

  6. I’m both a tennis fan and a boxing fan, and I think a points ranking system similar to what tennis uses can be used for boxing.

    If you’re not familiar with boxing’s problematic history, there are various corrupt organisations that decide their own champions and rankings, and the only alternative to this has been journalists passing off their opinions as fair rankings.

    I think your suggestion that rankings should suggest to fans who the best tennis players are is problematic and misunderstands the purpose of rankings. Rankings should not be a reflection of ability, but should strictly be a reflection of performance. You said “if the ranking system told us that Nadal outranked Djokovic despite losing to him several times in a row, the system would lose credibility”… but in fact if a ranking system was set up to prevent that from happening it would lose credibility. Players shouldn’t be ranked higher simply because of potential or because we think they’re better. That’s the point I’ve been trying to make to boxing fans and writers about boxing rankings! I’ve even made sure to use the example of Nadal dropping below Ferrer in the rankings after Nadal beat Ferrer to win the French Open as evidence that the tennis system is fair! Ferrer deserved to move ahead of Nadal despite losing to him, because Nadal was injured and missed tournaments less than one year ago, while Ferrer had maintained consistent success throughout the year.

    Yes, increasing the period to two years would overrate older players who couldn’t compete at the level they could two years ago, while underrating younger players who have had success in the last year, and maintain the status quo. But your sliding scale of giving more recent matches higher weight could unfairly give a player a high seeding in the next tournament just because he had a good run in the previous tournament. If recent class were given more weight, proven class wouldn’t be adequately reflected. There needs to be an equal balance between consistency and form. Two years of course hardly reflects recent form at all, six months isn’t long enough to get a full enough sample, but I think the one-year period the ATP uses is adequate.

    It was the aspect of various levels of success in different levels of tournaments I used as my model to decide that boxing should use a points system to objectively reward quality of opposition. I agree with you that it seems sensible to also include opposition rank in the ATP rankings. My idea for boxing is fairly simple: a boxer would earn 1 point for facing the number 30 contender, 2 points for fighting the number 29 contender, and so on, to 30 points if he faces the number 1 contender. He would earn 33 points if he faces the champion. He would earn DOUBLE the points for beating a contender or champion. Though success at various levels of tournaments should still be much more important, maybe a similar sliding scale of points could be added on top of existing points earned for tennis.

    But complaining about the tennis system is just petty quibbling to a boxing fan! Could you imagine if there were multiple Wimbledon champions? Or if the alternative was tennis journalists deciding tennis rankings? So the hard part will be compiling initial rankings for boxing before ranking points would produce objective rankings.

    If you’re interested in the details take a look at my proposed idea here…

  7. I write this just after the Aus Open 2014, won by Wawrinka, and I find the ranking system’s flaws could not be more obvious, Federer was ranked 6th but makes the semis and as a reward he falls to 8th although the only match he lost was to Nadal, the world number one.

  8. I would increase the amount of points given in the early stages of the competition. Someone who has played 3 matches in Quals might go out in R128 in a slam and only get small amount of points. If you look at the points difference from R128 = 10 to the winner receiving 2000 that’s x200!
    Yet in the futures 10000 you get R16 = 1 to winner = 18 which is x18

    I like the leader board system and feel keeping the score for a full year is good but I think they need to have more points allocated to the early rounds and have a consistent multiplier for ranking points across all tournaments.

    Also get rid of BYE in tournaments if its a R128 let’s see that, there’s lots of challengers and qualifiers who would love a chance on the big stage.
    I would make the bottom futures a 50 then next up 100, 150 so on increase by 50pts each level up.

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