Better Than All The Rest?

World rankings are a divisive subject. The credence afforded to rankings varies from sport to sport as does the importance placed upon them.

A generalisation could be made that rankings are given far more attention in individual sports than in team sports. In sports such as tennis, golf and Olympic distance triathlon great attention is paid to who is number 1 and the chase to top the rankings. Whereas in team sports such as football, rugby, hockey and basketball then little is made of who is ranked number one, or even who makes up the top 10 (who can honestly believe rankings such as the FIFA ones that currently have England placed seventh in the World?).

Caroline Wozniacki Winning in Belgium

Caroline Wozniacki's position as the world number one tennis player is widely questioned. Photo: americanistadechiapas

An alternative view could be taken that rankings become somewhat irrelevant in sports with a standalone World Championships to decide who is best, whilst rankings only matter in sports that lack a single competition to identify a true champion. This theory is borne out when comparing the sports mentioned above; football, rugby, hockey and basketball all have a World Cup whereas tennis, golf and to some extent triathlon lack a single focal point for the season.

There are other sports that disprove the first theory of team vs. individual whilst lending support to the idea of a world champion. Cricket is a team sport that currently lacks a competition for the test format of the game and thus great significance is given to the world rankings, as we saw when England recently climbed to the top of the ICC Test rankings for the first time. Snooker also bucks the trend as it is an individual sport in which more attention is paid to the winner of the World Championships each May than to the world number one.

So we can conclude that the lack of a single tournament to determine the best in the world is the main factor in determining the worth attributed to rankings. It is human nature to want to determine who is best though, so without a world championships to decide it then it is logical to have an alternative method, i.e. rankings.

The debate then turns to what rankings should be measuring, how do you define the best player in the world? Should rankings be significantly weighted to the bigger competitions in a season or should they be a measure of consistency over a sustained period?

It could be argued that tennis and golf rankings are given most attention by both players and media alike so it is no surprise that there is currently debate over how they both rank their players.

Both tennis and golf lack a single world championships, unfortunately they share the problem of having four tournaments a year that are considered to be above the rest of the events, thus confusing the issue of deciding a world number one. Current ranking systems in these sports attempt to place higher importance on the four major events whilst still rewarding consistency throughout rest of the year. The problem is that whilst high importance is given to the world rankings, they don’t surpass the kudos attained by success in any of the four majors.

Luke Donald

Luke Donald on his way to another top 10 finish at the Heritage in April. Photo: Keith Allison

Luke Donald is currently the Official World Golf Rankings number one player and Caroline Wozniacki has just been crowned as 2011’s top ranked female tennis player by the WTA. However these two individuals share the dubious honour of being ranked number one in their sport but without an all important major victory to their name.

England’s Donald and Denmark’s Wozniacki can rightfully claim to have been the most consistent performers in their sports for the past two years. Wozniacki has finished the year ranked number one in both 2010 and 2011, whilst golf rankings cover the past two years anyway so Donald’s current ranking confirms his dominance over the last 24 months.

Donald’s dominance in fact is so large that the gap between himself and second placed Lee Westwood is the same as the gap between Westwood and Bubba Watson in 16th place, he is also highly likely to become the first ever player to win the money lists on both the PGA and European Tours in the same season. The Hertfordshire born player has had a year to remember, winning five times, recording two top-10 finishes in majors and 14 top-10 finishes from 19 PGA Tour events whilst averaging the lowest score on the PGA Tour at 68.86 strokes per round.

When you compare his 2011 record with those of the major winners from this year it’s hard to say that any have a better claim at the number one spot than Donald. Masters winner Charl Schwartzel, Open Championship winner Darren Clarke and US PGA victor Keegan Bradley each won just one other tournament all year, whilst Rory McIlroy’s US Open victory was his sole win on either Tour this year and only the third of his whole career.

Kvitova and Sharapova at Wombledon 2011.

Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova are two of Wozniacki's closest challengers, both of whom have won a major. Photo: americanistadechiapas

Wozniacki’s place atop the rankings is not as strong as Donald’s but she should still be admired and respected for her consistency and dedication. Many people argue that were it not for Maria Sharapova’s shoulder, Kim Clijsters’ ankle, Justine Henin’s elbow, Serena Williams’ foot or Venus Williams’ advancing years then any one of those would depose the Dane as number one. The point of the rankings though is to decide the best player over a period of time and if you’re not fit enough to take to the court for the majority of that period then you cannot rightfully be called the best.

Again comparing Wozniacki’s year to those of the major winners of 2011 suggests that the 21 yr old Dane deserves her number one status. Wozniacki has six singles titles to her name in 2011, the four major winners together could only manage nine and she also won 17% more matches that her closest rival.

I have no doubt that Donald and Wozniacki will both win at least one major in their careers, they both have time on their side and both of their games are still developing. So whilst the debate will rage on about their right to be called the best in the world when they haven’t won a major it is worth remembering not to confuse the two achievements.

Being ranked world number one means you’ve had consistently better results than anyone else in the world for the past year, being a major winner means that you were the best player in the tournament for a given week (golf) or fortnight (tennis).

Photos: Wozniacki + Kvitova and Sharapova – americanistadechiapas, Donald – Keith Allison

3 thoughts on “Better Than All The Rest?

  1. I agree that consistency is important and that being ranked number 1 is a fantastic achievement, however you could argue it takes a more special performer to hold their nerve and play at the top of their game at the major championships. To be remembered you’ve got to win championships and all elite performers want that. I also imagine all training/competition schedules are arranged to optimise performance for the major championships – why wouldn’t they be? So many they are physically the strongest to stay the number one ranked but are not as mentally prepared as they should be?

  2. I would argue that it takes a more special performer to become a no. 1.

    Here are some stats to back me up:

    Male tennis rankings began in 1973, since then there have been 25 no. 1s but 48 separate major champions.

    Female tennis rankings began in 1975, since then there have been 20 no. 1s but 37 separate major champions.

    Male golf rankings began in 1986, since then there have been 15 no. 1s but 64 separate major champions.

    Female golf rankings began in 2006, since then there have been 6 no. 1s but 18 separate major champions.

    I agree that sports fans in general remember the champions rather than the no.1s but I think that’s more of a tradition thing as rankings are a relatively new concept.

    With regards to mental preparation then I think you can look at it two ways and perhaps split it into two different aspects. It takes a huge amount of mental fortitude to put in the requisite hours work in order to become a world number 1. However most people would agree that the most pressurised situations are in major tournaments so if you can’t get it done when the pressure’s on then maybe that requires a different type of mental preparation.

    All in all though I still think that rankings and major victories should be viewed as two seprate entities even though rankings still do a pretty good job of encompassing the major tournaments.

    Only 5 female tennis players have been no.1 without a major (two of which went on to win one).

    Only one female golfer has got to no.1 without a major win.

    Only 2 male tennis players have been ranked no.1 without a major (one of whom subsequently won one).

    Only 2 male golfers have got to no.1 without a major to their name.

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