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Steve Flink: Rankings vs Race

7/27/2008 5:53:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Last week at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, Rafael Nadal refused to lower the volume of his intensity. He collected a fifth consecutive singles championship, lifting his winning streak to 29 matches in a row, raising expectations among his many followers that he will soon move past Roger Federer to the summit at No. 1 in the world. That streak is astounding in many ways. He has won those titles on three different surfaces, capturing Hamburg and Roland Garros on the clay, ruling on the grass at Queen's Club and Wimbledon, and securing his first hard court tournament victory since Indian Wells in March of 2007 with his triumph in Toronto. In that streak, he has three times recorded wins over Federer, Djokovic, and Andy Murray. Moreover, he has handled a number of other formidable rivals including Andy Roddick and Richard Gasquet.

It is no wonder that Nadal is on the verge of achieving the highly coveted No. 1 ranking. Not only had he won those five consecutive tournaments as he headed this week to Cincinnati, but he had also come through in seven of his last eight tournaments. Those are big time numbers. And when you look strictly at 2008 results, there can be no dispute that Nadal has been the best player in the world of tennis. Federer, by contrast, has prevailed in only two of twelve tournaments across 2008, and has not won a Grand Slam event. Djokovic has one major in his collection and three tournament victories altogether, but his record pales in comparison with Nadal's.

In any case, there is much public confusion about the world rankings these days, and the reason is simple. The ATP Tour has an official "Entry System" ranking, which is based on the previous 52 weeks for all of the players. In other words, Roger Federer is ranked right now for what he has done from July 28 of 2007 to July 28 of 2008. So Federer, despite all of his vulnerabilities in 2008, is still carrying some substantial triumphs from the 2007 season, including his U.S. Open victory and his season-ending tournament win at the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai.

Because those results are still included on those South African Airways ATP Rankings, Federer remains 300 points ahead of Nadal (6605 to 6305). If Nadal won Cincinnati this week and Federer fell before the semifinals, the Spaniard could take over at No. 1 on Monday August 4. Even if Nadal does not get to No. 1 next week, he would almost certainly secure the top position two weeks later. Last year, the Rogers Cup event and Cincinnati were played two weeks later in the calendar so they remain on the computer now. Federer collected 850 points a year ago when he was a finalist in Canada and won Cincinnati. Nadal won only 230 points in that span, getting to the semifinals in Canada and losing his opening match in Cincinnati.

Sooner or later, that situation will sort itself out, and Nadal will inevitably become No. 1. But what no one has been talking about is the ATP points system that is labeled "The Race", which counts only 2008 events. The players have a clean slate each and every year, and all that matters in "The Race" is what happens from the beginning to the end of each year. The allocation of points is different. And in the ATP Race, the numbers tell an entirely different and much more accurate story of who belongs where in 2008. Heading into Cincinnati, Nadal had piled up 1055 points and stood far apart from his rivals at No. 1. Federer was in second place with 686 points, with Djokovic only slightly behind at 674. Nadal's 369 point lead over Federer is significant and substantial. Grand Slam events award 200 points to the champion and 140 to finalists; Masters Series tournaments like Toronto and Cincinnati grade on a scale of 100 points to the victor and 70 to the runner-up.

So Federer has a long way to go to catch Nadal in the race. To me, the Race has much more merit than the official Rankings. Why? Because every year should be examined separately when we are looking at the rankings. The ATP needs the 52 week system for purposes of seeding players at tournaments. Otherwise, early in any given year, players who happened to win warm-up events leading up to the Australian Open in January would be placed at the top of the seeding lists, which would make no sense. That problem would persist until the middle of the year. And yet, similarly, it is nonsensical to me that the public would be constantly informed only about those official South African ATP Rankings, becoming totally baffled that Nadal could win the French Open and Wimbledon and be steamrolling along with all of his other titles, while Federer remained the top graded player in the game.

Once we get deep into the summer, the Race is all that really matters. To be sure, if Nadal passes Federer at some point in the next few weeks, it would be a considerable accomplishment for the Spaniard. Federer has, after all, resided at the penthouse of his sport in the official rankings for a record 234 consecutive weeks, ever since he first got to the top on February 4, 2004. That is irrefutable evidence that the Swiss maestro has been a singularly dominant figure over a four year stretch. Think of what he did from 2004-2007, when he won 11 of the 16 Grand Slam events. Moreover, he lost only 15 matches from 2005-2007.

But this year, Federer has not been able to set the pace, while Nadal has soared to a new personal level. The way I see it, Nadal has to look at the larger picture, and make his goal to finish the year at No. 1. That is why I am sure both he and Federer are more concerned with the points in the Race. Federer will be determined to turn things around with a U.S. Open victory and a stirring autumn, looking to see if he can overcome Nadal down the stretch at the indoor events where he has traditionally been more comfortable, and hoping he can claim the No. 1 honor for the fifth year in a row. That would give him a chance to tie the Pete Sampras record of six years in a row at the top (1993-98) in 2009.

Nadal knows he must keep winning to keep Federer and Djokovic at bay, and must surely realize what a waste it would be to take over temporarily at No. 1 but have it removed from him at the end of 2008. Only 23 players have held the coveted No. 1 ranking since the computer system was started in 1973. Most of those men were more than worthy of the distinction. But a few got to No. 1 in the middle of a season and never quite lived up to the billing. Marcelo Rios, who never won a major, got to No. 1 in March of 1998 and only held on to it for four weeks. Starting in early May of 1999, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who had won the Australian Open that year, spent six weeks at No. 1 but could not sustain that standard. And Carlos Moya, still the reigning French Open champion, was No. 1 for two weeks in March of 1999.

With all due respect to all of those players, their accomplishments in making it to the top of the ladder were important. But how important? How much stock can be placed on a player's performance from the middle of one year until the middle of the next year? In my view, not much. Consider the case of Pete Sampras during his record six year status as the world's No. 1 ranked player. In that stretch, at various stages in those seasons, Andre Agassi, Thomas Muster and Rios took over temporarily at the top. But Sampras understood that finishing the year at No. 1 was what counted above all else. He had the right set of priorities, as has Federer.

Gustavo Kuerten in 2000 took the No. 1 ranking away from Marat Safin by winning the year-end event in Lisbon, toppling Sampras and Agassi back to back. Safin had been No. 1 for two weeks, but was denied the much greater satisfaction of completing that season at No. 1. I believe Nadal knows in his heart that he needs to keep tending to his knitting, to make certain he gives himself every chance to stay ahead of the pack and walk away from 2008 having established himself unequivocally as the best player in the world for the year.

So I urge all fans to keep the ATP Rankings in perspective, and to closely follow the rest of the Race for 2008. In the end, that is the best and only way to judge these champions. I have a feeling Rafael Nadal knows precisely where he stands in the all important Race, and the guess here is that he will keep himself fully informed of how many points he has amassed until he knows he has sealed the deal for the season.

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