Imagine this happening in your line of work: Posted online and regularly updated for the entire world to see is an objective, black-and-white assessment of how you’ve been faring over the past 52 weeks, how you compare to your colleagues and competitors and how your current status compares to that of a day, a week, a month, a year ago.
Essentially, that’s what the rankings are for a professional tennis player. Match victories are rewarded with points, which generally remain on a player’s record for 12 months, then drop off. They are, in many ways, the sport’s currency.
“It’s the most stressful thing about our job,” said Paula Badosa, a Spaniard who entered Wimbledon at No. 3 in the women’s rankings. “We spend so much time thinking about the rankings: ‘If you win this match …’ or ‘if you lose against this player, you’re going to lose your spot.’ It’s a lot.”
At Wimbledon, the Grand Slam tournament that concludes Sunday, there is an additional — and unprecedented — source of angst: No one is earning any ranking points at all. That’s because the WTA women’s tour and ATP men’s tour decided not to give them out in response to the All England Club’s ban on athletes from Russia and Belarus over the war in Ukraine.
So someone like Ons Jabeur is dealing with two sets of emotions. She is excited, of course, about what she’s done over the past 1 1/2 weeks on the grass courts, reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal and becoming the first Arab woman to get that far at a major. Her five wins moved her closer to the trophy and earned plenty of money (at least 535,000 pounds, or about $640,000).
There’s also a bit of a downer amid the euphoria.
“I’m not going to lie to you. The more you do good, the more you regret not (getting) any points,” said Jabeur, a 27-year-old from Tunisia who is ranked No. 2 and will face close friend Tatjana Maria, 34, of Germany in Thursday’s semifinals.
“I don’t just look at myself, but I also look at Tatjana,” Jabeur said. “Now she makes a good run, and she doesn’t have points.”
A player such as the 103rd-ranked Maria loses out on the jump she would have received for faring so well a year after missing Wimbledon because she had just given birth.
And players who did well at the event a year ago do not get the chance to “defend” those points. The 2,000 earned by Novak Djokovic for his 2021 championship, for example, will simply drop off his record next week with zero replenishment, even if he ends up with the title again.
Returning a season later to the site of success can weigh on athletes who are well aware that those year-old points are about to disappear.
“That’s inevitable. And if you don’t think about it, people remind you,” said Tamara Zidansek, a 24-year-old Slovenian who reached the French Open semifinals while ranked No. 85 in 2021.
That was the main reason for her rise to a career-best No. 22; she is down to No. 60 after losing in the third round in Paris in 2022.
“It’s probably different for everyone, but I spend a lot of time thinking about the rankings,” said Taylor Fritz, the highest-ranked U.S. man at No. 13 entering Wimbledon, who won’t get the significant bump that his quarterfinal appearance Wednesday usually would bring. “It’s a big part of my goals to be in the top 10, top five.”
Djokovic already owns the men’s record for the most weeks at No. 1 — he’s now No. 3 behind reigning U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who is Russian and barred from Wimbledon — and said he’s no longer as concerned about rankings as he once was. That might be a good thing, because the new up-to-the-minute “live rankings” the ATP unveiled as part of a recent sponsorship deal show that he’ll drop to No. 7 next week.
A vocal critic of the ban and the tours’ response, Djokovic estimates “90-plus percent of the players who are playing in this tournament, and the ones that are not playing, are going to be more affected by” the zero-points situation than he will.
So true. Rankings are a “benchmark,” as 2021 U.S. Open semifinalist Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada put it.
As he also noted, they’re so much more. Endorsement deals can be tied to the rankings. Favorable seedings, which might make a path through a bracket easier, come via the rankings. Access to the main draws at tournaments are based on the rankings.
“That’s how the system is,” said Auger-Aliassime, who lost in the first round last week, “and you have to accept early in your career that’s how it’s going to be.”
Another way in which rankings affect things: Going into each match, a simple way to guess at the possible outcome is glancing at the numbers beside each player’s name.
Fans do that. As does the media. And players, too.
The higher-rated one is the one who, at a basic and theoretical level, is “supposed” to win.
“My mind is quite dumb, sometimes, where I find negative more than the positive in each situation. So I try to not think too much about it, but at the same time, I’m human. So when I’m playing someone higher ranked, it comes naturally that I’m the underdog,” said Ajla Tomljanovic, an Australian ranked 44th who lost in the quarterfinals Wednesday to No. 23 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan. “I can feel my nerves kicking in and, especially if it’s not going my way, I may be quicker to react and think, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ and start panicking.”
Players are well aware how easy — and unhealthy — it can be to become rankings-obsessed.
“I stopped looking at points and rankings because I felt like that wouldn’t help me,” said Denis Shapovalov, a semifinalist last year at Wimbledon who has been in the top 10 and now is No 16. “I just taught myself to only look at my game and how I can improve and where I’m at level-wise.”