Tennis Ranking System Befuddles

So, who's No. 1?

That depends on what the meaning of "one" is.

If you ask most tennis commentators and fans, it's U.S. Open women's champion Venus Williams.

If you ask the Women's Tennis Association, it's Martina Hingis, even though Williams' sister Serena dominated her Friday in the Open semifinals, and Hingis hasn't won one of the four major tournaments since early 1999.

"Hingis is No. 1, but she shouldn't be because she's not the best," Sue Sakolosky, 58, of Boca Raton, Fla., said Friday on her way to watch the Swiss star get drubbed by Serena — who was ranked No. 10, by the way.

And that's just the women's side.

What's What? Who's Who?

For the men, No. 1 is "Guga," Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten, a curly-locked fan's favorite who skipped Wimbledon this year and is best only on the dirt-style clay courts so prevalent in Europe and Latin America.

Kuerten's still ranked number No. 1 this week even though on the pavement-like courts at the Open he was beaten by new No. 6 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who himself was beaten by eventual champion Lleyton Hewitt, now no. 3. In the final Hewitt vanquished finalist Pete Sampras who at No. 10 is ranked lower than world No. 2 Andre Agassi, even though Sampras beat him in the quarterfinals.


You're not alone.

"My wife plays three times a week, knows all the technicalities on the court, but when it comes to the other technicalities," says Tom Jordan, 39, of Ridgefield, Conn., "she says, 'I don't know.' The rankings, it's hard to follow it."

And that system doesn't even take into account the ATP Champions Race — a new ranking method conceived by the Association of Tennis Professionals that none of the fans interviewed at the Open could explain — if they'd even heard of it.

"The Champion's Race was designed to show who's doing best year-to-date," said Greg Sharko, an ATP spokesman. "People that really follow the sport really want to know who's winning tournaments, and playing well."

In the Champions Race, Sampras is No. 7, even though his ranking — which has been renamed the "entry system" — is still No. 10.

Still More Ways of Ranking

Of course, that has nothing to do with seedings, which is the method by which a tournament's officials assign players a number according to how well they think the players will do there for a week or two.

"To me, it reeks of gimmickry," said Mike Manning, 33, an investment consultant in Boston, after watching Serena Williams thrash Hingis. "I don't know why they don't make it simple."

The U.S. Open virtually always seeds by the rankings — put out by the WTA and, for the men, the ATP. When it tried to rejigger them in 1996, Kafelnikov ranked 4, but seeded 7, dropped out in disgust, accusing the tournament officials of trying to highlight American players Sampras, Agassi and Michael Chang, and assure they'd make the latest rounds possible.

And for the Internet-savvy, there is yet one more method for ranking a player, against athletes in any sport. The top tennis pro in this category hasn't won a tournament — even a minor one — in five years, didn't play in the U.S. Open this year and can hardly cling to the WTA's top 20.

The No. 1 searched athlete on the Internet, according to Lycos, is Anna Kournikova.