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

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The Green Green Grass Of Home

It’s that time of year again, time for the nation’s two-week love affair with tennis to begin and for some to discover that Fred Perry was actually a tennis player and not a designer of colourful polo shirts. Yes Wimbledon fortnight is upon us once more and with it come the annual questions of why we haven’t produced a home-grown champion in so long? (75 years now, and England football fans thought they had it bad!). And the more recent quandary of whether Andy Murray will be able to end that drought?

Roger Federer serves on Centre Court

Centre Court will be the centre of the nation's attention for the coming fortnight. Photo: Phil Jones

I’m not here to answer the first of those questions and I’ll get around to the second one in a little while. All I can say is that it gets rather tiresome listening to Roger Draper (Chief Exec. of Lawn Tennis Association) come up with the same old lines every June and announce a new initiative to get more people playing the game. He has been head of the LTA for five years now and I’m fairly certain he said when he got the job that it would take a few years to see the benefits of the changes he would make and that we have to be patient. Well he said the same thing last week and will no doubt say the same next year, in fairness it is the same schtick his predecessor came out with though and his protestations that we have a good crop of youngsters coming through does actually have some evidence to back it up this time.

British Talent

On the boys side we currently have one boy in the world’s top 10 and a further two in the top 20. Oliver Golding (no.5) made the semis at Wimbledon last year and followed that with a run to the final of the doubles at the US open and a quarter-final place on the clay of France this year. Promising results indeed and he was hardly embarrassed on his senior tour debut last week in his straight sets defeat to grass-lover Nicolas Mahut at Queen’s. George Morgan (no. 11) has also shown promise by winning the coveted U18 Orange Bowl trophy in Miami last December. It wasn’t Morgan’s first triumph in Florida though having already won the U14 title three years previously, his success there made him the first Brit to win the U18 trophy after Andy Murray could only succeed in the U12 age group. Victory in the Orange Bowl doesn’t guarantee you success on the senior tour but when you look at the previous winners there you can see that it’s not a bad guide when looking for the stars of tomorrow. Finally there’s Liam Broady (no. 17), he may be the lowest ranked but he’s the only one with grand slam pedigree, having already won the boys doubles at last year’s Wimbledon with fellow Brit Tom Farquharson, beating Morgan and his partner in the all British final. So the mens side of the game should be looking a bit more rosy in a couple of years time if these three can all make the jump up to senior level, however this cannot be taken for granted as we’ve had talented juniors before but they’ve failed to progress after their early promise.

Heather Watson at the French Open

Watson's win at the French Open propelled her into the top 100. Photo: Carine06

The girls are a step ahead of the boys in all departments it seems. They have two players in the senior top 100 compared to just Murray on the men’s side and a further six in the top 300 as opposed to just one man. The up and coming juniors are no longer juniors though, we don’t have a single girl in the top 100 juniors as our recent successes have seen both Laura Robson and Heather Watson make the step on to the senior tour in the last year or so. Both of them have junior grand slam singles titles to their name, something they share with Murray but a feat yet to be achieved by any of the promising boys. Watson has so far better of the pair, she recently turned 19 and became the first British woman to reach the second round of the French Open in 19 years (soon followed by Elena Baltacha), a result that propelled her into the top 100 for the first time in her career. Robson’s progress has faltered this year, her ranking has dropped to 247 having cracked the top 200 towards the end of last year, she split with her coach this week and is currently focussing on taking advantage of the wildcard she has been given into the main draw at Wimbledon.

Who will win?

On to the serious stuff now, Wimbledon is quoted by the great and the good to be the holy grail of tennis tournaments, so who will end up holding those famous old trophies aloft in a fortnight’s time?

WOMEN

No-one seems to want to take control of the women’s game at the minute, extended absences from the Williams sisters gave a perfect opportunity for someone to sweep up and dominate the game but it all seems to be a bit ‘no after you….’ at the moment. Caroline Wozniacki has been rewarded for consistent form by keeping hold of the number one spot, but she has yet to develop an attacking side to her game that can take her all the way to a grand slam title. Kim Clijsters won the US Open last year and the Australian Open at the beginning of this in Serena’s absence, but a bizarre ankle injury sustained whilst dancing at a wedding seems to have ruined her chances of success this summer and rumours of another retirement are starting to surface again.

Li Na is in good form having made the final of both majors so far this season, losing to Clijsters in Melbourne earlier in the year but then becoming the first Asian player to win a grand slam singles title in Paris earlier in the month. The world number four has a reasonable record on the grass as well having made the quarter finals twice in the last 5 years, last years run seemed to provide the catalyst for her rise up the rankings as well.

Sharapova serves on centre court

Maria Sharapova's serve, if working well, will be big weapon in her assault on the title. Photo: Phil Jones

Maria Sharapova must be considered a real contender this year after a good run of form recently that saw her win on the clay in Rome and then make the semi finals in Paris. She is previously quoted as saying that she feels like a ‘cow on ice’ when playing on clay, so if she can play that well on the red stuff she must be in good form. If her serve can stay consistent over two weeks then there’s no-one in the draw that she will be afraid of and even fewer that will have a chance of stopping her getting her hands on the Venus Rosewater dish for a second time.

Outsiders:

Marion Bartoli has just won in Eastbourne, she made the semis in Paris and has form at Wimbledon.

Petra Kvitova made the semis last year and her all-out attack game took her to the final of Eastbourne this week.

Victoria Azarenka has had a very good first half of 2011 but her form has dipped somewhat since leaving the hard courts of America, back on to a fast surface she will be a formidable opponent for anyone.

Last but not least the Williams sisters are back. They returned at Eastbourne this week and both looked rusty as they tried to shake off some cobwebs in preparation for the trip to SW19. Venus has won the title 5 times but age seems to be catching up with her and lack of matches will probably be her downfall this year. Serena is looking for a 5th title to equal her big sister but the serious health problems that followed her long-term foot injury have placed a question mark over her fitness and preparation for Wimbledon. She’s a fighter though and as strong as an ox so you wouldn’t put it past her levelling things up with Venus. The seedings committee have certainly given her a helping hand as well – bumping her up from her ranking of 26 to be seeded 7th.

My prediction? Sharapova to come through a tough top half of the draw and beat Azarenka in a ‘battle of the shriekers’ final to take her second Wimbledon title.

MEN

The usual contenders are there and in tip-top condition. Rafa has just won a record-equalling 6th French Open crown, is on a 14 match winning streak at the All England Club and has the added motivation of fighting for his number 1 spot. He lost in the quarter finals of Queen’s last week and looked a little lethargic in doing so but that can be forgiven considering it came straight on the back of a gruelling clay court season in which he had to fight harder than usual to eventually reign supreme at Roland Garros. He was pushed all the way by Murray in the Madrid semis and lost twice in finals to Djokovic in Madrid and Rome but put everyone in their place to equal Bjorn Borg’s record in Paris.

Novak Djokovic has had a simply phenomenal 2011 to date, 42 matches played and only one loss, seven tournament victories, including the Australian Open and all five Masters 1000 tournaments played this season. It took an inspired performance from Roger Federer to bring his 43 match winning streak to an end in the semi finals at Roland Garros. He pulled out of Queen’s to rest a knee problem, but his improved strength and endurance has played a large part in his sustained level of success this year. The jovial Serb has switched to a gluten-free diet this season and has since banished the breathing problems that have blighted his career to date. He was known as a player that was always susceptible to a physical breakdown when the going got tough but that hasn’t been the case this year so there is no reason he can’t improve on his previous best semi final performance and win Wimbledon this year.

The Fed-Express had been rather less than express since his last grand slam victory at the 2010 Australian Open, but since starting to work with Paul Annacone (Pete Sampras’ old coach) in July of last year he has steadily been getting back to somewhere near his best. Unfortunately his best is now not always good enough, he seemed to have the upper hand against Nadal in this year’s French Open final having dominated the first set but somehow Nadal still won it. Federer’s game seems to be more attacking than it was during much of last year, he puts it down to being fully fit again after prolonged back issues during 2010. He will have to hope that the Wimbledon courts are playing particularly quick this year if he is going to break Nadal’s winning streak on Centre Court and equal Sampras’ record 7 Wimbledon titles.

Andy Murray serves at Wimbledon

Andy Murray will need a high 1st serve percentage to be successful at this year's Wimbledon. Photo: pk2004

Last of the main contenders is Britain’s own Andy Murray. Fresh off his most productive clay court season ever and regaining the Queen’s Club title this week, Murray couldn’t have wished for a better Wimbledon preparation (ankle injury sustained at Roland Garros not withstanding). Successive semi final losses at Wimbledon have left the British public wondering whether they have another Henman on their hands? This is a little harsh though, Murray is still improving and still has time on his side, he just happens to be playing in one of the strongest periods ever for men’s tennis. Murray has made three grand slam finals so far and he is more than capable of improving that figure at this years championships but he will need to be at the peak of his powers for the whole two weeks, with no lapses in concentration in order to have a chance – he isn’t good enough to have a 5 minute relax against the big-3 without getting punished. His semi final victory over Andy Roddick at Queen’s showed that when he plays attacking tennis and goes for the kill early in the rally he can be devastating. The draw hasn’t been kind to him either, he is scheduled to meet Nadal in the semis for the second successive year but faces a stern test to get that far, Marin Cilic, Richard Gasquet and Andy Roddick all lie in wait in one of the toughest grand slam final routes you could pick.

Outsiders:

Tomas Berdych made the final last year, not in the best of form at the minute but can never be counted out.

Robin Soderling and his massive forehand will always pose a danger but having since split with Magnus Norman will he revert back to his old ways?

Andy Roddick may have missed his best chance to win on the hallowed turf in London but with that serve and a formidable grass-court pedigree he could play himself into some form with a few early wins.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the enigmatic Frenchman known as ‘Ali’ loves to play on grass and if he can play to his best consistently then he has a big enough game to beat anyone.

Juan Martin Del Potro is still on the way back from the wrist injury that ruined his 2010 season but a couple of tournament wins this season show he’s getting back to his US Open winning best. The biggest forehand in the game (based on wingspan anyway!) could do some damage if the courts play quickly.

My prediction? I’d love to see a Murray v Djokovic final but I’ll play safe and go for another Nadal v Federer classic with Nadal shading it to keep Pete’s record safe for another year.

Anyone else confident enough to leave their predictions below?