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Explained: Why is Roger Federer in the top 10 despite not entering a tournament for a year?

All this comes down to the new ranking system the Association of Men’s Tennis (ATP) – the governing body of the men’s game – introduced last year.

Written by Shahid Judge , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: March 23, 2021 7:25:57 am
Roger Federer, Federer ATP rankings, ATP rankings, Federer ranking, Tennis mens rankings, Indian ExpressRoger Federer. (File photo)

Alexander Zverev hid an annoyance behind his smile, as he lifted the ATP 500 Mexican Open trophy on Sunday. It was his 14th career title, but the German was still riddled by a question: why was Roger Federer still ranked higher than him. “(Federer) has not played for a year and he is higher ranked than me. The (ranking) system is just a disaster,” Zverev lamented before the tournament.

Since the tennis tour resumed in August after the outbreak of the pandemic, the 23-year-old has reached the finals of the US Open and Paris Masters, won two consecutive ATP 250 events, and now claimed the title in Acapulco. Yet the World No 7 is still ranked lower than Federer who has played just two matches since last year’s Australian Open.

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All this comes down to the new ranking system the Association of Men’s Tennis (ATP) – the governing body of the men’s game – introduced last year.

How does the new ranking system work?

The ATP introduced a modified system after the outbreak of the pandemic. The new system does not deduct ranking points from a player’s tally, but instead picks the better performance from two editions of the same event. This means that Federer, who missed the entire 2020 season after the Australian Open – as he recovered from knee surgery – and only returned earlier this month to play at the Qatar Open, did not lose any ranking points at all. He’s currently the World No 6.

When Federer last had a lengthy absence from the tour, a six-month break after Wimbledon 2016, he left ranked No 3, and returned at the Australian Open in 2017 ranked 17. This time the break was longer, but he dropped only from 3 to 6.

How did the traditional ranking system work, and will it return?

The traditional system will resume from January 2022. Each event offers a certain number of ranking points based on how far in a tournament a player reaches. In the following year, the player will be defending those points by trying to either reach the same round he did the previous year, or go better. For example, by reaching the fourth round of the 2018 Australian Open, Novak Djokovic earned 180 ranking points. At the same event the following year, he would need to reach at least the fourth round in order for him to not lose any ranking points from his total tally. But since he won the event (which offers 2000 points to the winner) in 2019 he added 1820 more ranking points to his tally.

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Why was the system changed?

Due to the pandemic, it was foreseen – understandably – that some players may face travel restrictions in their home country or may not want to travel for events at the risk of being infected with the virus. As a result, the governing body of men’s tennis changed their usual 12-month ranking system to a 22-month cycle – which will revert back to the traditional method in January 2022. The modified system does not deduct ranking points from a player’s tally, but instead uses a ‘Best Of’ logic to calculate points. For example, World No 2 Daniil Medvedev had won the Cincinnati Masters event in 2019 to earn 1000 points, but only reached the quarterfinal (180 points) when he was defending his title in 2020. Based on the new system, the ATP would only consider the better result, which was his win in 2019.According to this system, a player like Federer, who has played just two matches since the pandemic, has not lost any ranking points. While the modified system does not reduce any ranking points, it makes it difficult for a lower ranked player to overtake someone placed higher.

Why is Federer ranked higher than Zverev?

Because the Swiss has more total ranking points. Federer’s tally is 6375, while Zverev and Rublev are on 6070 and 5101 respectively.

Will Federer lose points if he skips Wimbledon?

Yes, but only 50 per cent. There were no tournaments held between March and early August 2020 because of the pandemic. As a result, a series of events – including the 2020 Wimbledon Championships – were cancelled. Therefore, the ATP will be weighing in this period differently. According to the ATP website: “Results from all levels of professional tennis during this period (4 March – 5 August 2019), not played in 2020, will be extended a further 52 weeks but weighted at 50 per cent. Results from rescheduled 2020 events (Kitzbühel, Hamburg, Rome & Roland Garros) will also be included for an additional 52 weeks at 50 per cent”

What this means is that there is a chance for players to lose points in this period, but only half of what can be lost. So in Federer’s case, since he reached the Wimbledon final in 2019 to earn 1200 points, should he not compete this time, he will lose only 900 points – or 50 per cent of what he would have lost in normal circumstances. Similarly, 2020 French Open champion Rafael Nadal will lose half of the 2000 points he won in Paris last year if he opts to skip the event this year.

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