Who’s No. 1, anyway?

The WTA ranking system, which counts only a maximum of 16 tournaments (17 for players making the WTA Finals), is flawed. Every minute and every point of every contest must count in a legitimate sport. Equally important, these major sports — unlike tennis — crown only one champion at the end of the year.

Garbine Muguruza won the Wimbledon this year, and made the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and the Round of 16 at the French and U.S. Opens. The smiling Spaniard should undoubtedly be crowned the ITF World Champion in December.   -  AP

Just because you’re No. 1 on the computer doesn’t mean you’re the best player in the world.

— Former superstar Pete Sampras, in 1999.

How can Garbine Muguruza receive the WTA Player of the Year award when Simona Halep finished No. 1 in the WTA rankings? Who’s the best player of 2017, anyway?

Leave it to the Women’s Tennis Association to produce such a farce. This embarrassing scenario is nothing new. The results of these two WTA yardsticks of supremacy have differed in 11 of the past 20 years. To compound the contradiction and confusion, the International Tennis Federation also weighs in. Since 1998, the ITF World Champion has differed from the WTA Player of the Year award six times and from the WTA No. 1 ranking five times. In 2004, credulity was strained to the limit: three women — Maria Sharapova, Lindsay Davenport, and Anastasia Myskina — were declared the best by three different entities.

Much like in 2004, parity at the top marked women’s tennis in 2017 with four different Grand Slam champions. So much so that going into the season-ending WTA Finals in Singapore, seven players had a chance to finish No. 1 in the rankings.

You can indirectly blame Serena Williams for the current mess. After she won the Australian Open while pregnant, she left the WTA Tour. That created a massive void that no woman filled.

Most of the blame, though, rests with the flawed WTA ranking system which counts only a maximum of 16 tournaments (17 for players making the WTA Finals). Caroline Wozniacki, the WTA Finals champion, gamed the system by playing 23 tournaments so that the six worst results among her non-mandatory tournaments did not count in the rankings.

That nonsensical unfairness would never sully and invalidate the NBA, NFL, MLB, or NHL standings or individual statistics. You can imagine the outrage by players and fans if the NBA decided to throw out the Golden State Warriors’ 20 worst games or Lebron James’ 20 least productive games. Every minute and every point of every contest must count in a legitimate sport. Equally important, these major sports — unlike tennis — crown only one champion at the end of the year.

Simona Halep, the undeserving beneficiary of the WTA’s ineptitude? Though the Romanian had a very poor season, she managed to pick up 6,175 ranking points with consistency, albeit a mediocre level of consistency, for the No. 1 ranking.   -  Getty Images


Ironically, the partial corrective for the WTA’s defective ranking system is its own Player of the Year award. The media votes for this award as well as for the WTA’s Doubles Team of the Year, Most Improved Player, Newcomer of the Year, and the Comeback Player of the Year. Tennis writers and broadcasters rightly attach much more importance to winning highly prestigious Grand Slam titles than the WTA rankings do. The latter awards 2,000 points to Grand Slam champions, 1,500 to the WTA Finals titlist, and 1,000 to winners of their four Premier Mandatory tournaments. The ITF and the media — but not the ATP and WTA — also rightly factor in Davis Cup, Fed Cup, and quadrennial Olympics results.

Rest assured, no player would ever trade a Grand Slam title — Wimbledon or the Australian, French, and US Opens — or an Olympic gold medal for even five WTA Finals titles or ten Premier Mandatory titles. If you doubt that, check their press conference quotes or their endorsement contracts which often include sizable bonuses for winning a major title. As 11-time major champion Bjorn Borg once said, “To win the last point in a Grand Slam tournament, that’s the most beautiful and most satisfying feeling you can get as a tennis player.”

Unfortunately, the WTA can’t even get its Player of the Year awards right. Unbelievably, the media voting deadline comes before the season is over. Besides being unfair to the players, it disqualifies and disrespects the remaining three tournaments, especially the WTA Finals. What’s the rush to judgment all about? Let’s give the award to the most deserving singles players and doubles teams for the entire year.

The undeserving beneficiary of the WTA’s ineptitude is Halep. The likeable Romanian capped off the most unimpressive season of any No. 1 player in history by failing to reach the semifinals at the WTA Finals. Most important, Halep failed to win a Grand Slam title. Though she reached the French Open final, she lost in the first round at the Australian and US Opens and advanced further only at Wimbledon, making the quarters. But it gets worse. So meagre was her resume that she won only one title anywhere, the Mutua Madrid Open.

Halep managed to pick up 6,175 ranking points with consistency, albeit a mediocre level of consistency, for the No. 1 ranking. Muguruza, my pick for WTA Player of the Year, ranked No. 2 with just 40 points less than Halep. The smiling Spaniard captured Wimbledon, but also fared creditably at the other majors, making the quarterfinals at the Aussie Open and the round of 16 at the French and US Opens. The ITF World Champion, which will be announced in December, will undoubtedly be Muguruza because the ITF accurately values the Grand Slam events and Fed Cup which it oversees.

So you can thank the occasionally maligned tennis media for getting it right. Meanwhile, the WTA continues to ruin the rankings and lose credibility.

If you think the Association of Tennis Professionals ranking system is any better than the WTA ranking system, think again. Tennismash took the WTA’s top 20 players and ranked them according to the ATP’s points formula. The result was that Wozniacki, ranked No. 3 by the WTA, shot up to No. 1 in the ATP’s rankings.

Was Wozniacki’s record worthy of the top spot? Was she really the best player in the world?

Let’s look at the most important part of her 2017 record. At the four Grand Slam events, Wozniacki lost in the second round, third round, fourth round, and quarterfinals.

As John McEnroe likes to say about the tragicomic: “You can not be serious!

Tennis and you never know where it will take you

When teenage tennis standout Gordon Haywood spurted in height, he switched to — you guessed it — basketball. The 6’8” Boston Celtics forward recently recalled, “I loved both sports.”

Haywood credits tennis for helping make him a college All-American at Butler and an NBA All-Star. “I wouldn’t be nearly the basketball player I am if I didn’t play tennis,” Hayward acknowledged. “Lateral quickness is huge in both sports.” Tennis, an individual sport requiring self-reliance and grit, also shaped his competitive character. “I learned I was a fighter, and I wasn’t going to give up.”

Haywood, who has a tennis court in his backyard, will never become the best basketball player in the NBA, which is loaded with super athletes. But he’s isn’t shy about crowing, “I feel I’m the best tennis player in the NBA.”

A close second is Dirk Nowitzki. A respectable tournament player as a teenager in Germany, he also switched to basketball where his towering height was an unqualified asset. Smart decision because the 7' power forward has earned All-NBA team recognition 12 times during his still-going, 20-year career for the Dallas Mavericks.

“I love tennis. I love to play. Before we had kids, my wife and I used to play almost every day,” Nowitzki revealed in a Sports Illustrated podcast. “I’m a big fan, and I always will be. Tennis is a fun sport.”

Like Haywood, Nowitzki attributes his mastering basketball footwork to his tennis background. “The pivots, quick push-offs, and the changes of direction came easily to me early on,” noted Nowitzki, who started playing tennis when “I was four or five.”

His passion for tennis has been channelled into charity events during the last two off-seasons. This September, Nowitzki organised an event at the SMU Tennis Center with the proceeds going to families affected by the devastating Hurricane Harvey.

Celebrities participating included NBA player J. J. Barea, tennis standouts Tommy Haas, Andy Roddick, and John Isner, and actor Ben Stiller.

Nowitzki showcased his still-formidable serve when he aced Isner in doubles. “I sliced it out wide. Then I chest-bumped my partner,” he enthused. “That’s my tennis claim to fame.”

More indirectly, tennis also proved beneficial for Andrew Benintendi, one of the premier rookies this season in Major League Baseball. The Boston Red Sox left-fielder started learning his picture-perfect swing at age 5 when his dad tossed him tennis balls. Benny’s veteran team-mate, Dustin Pedroia, an avid tennis player, transferred an essential of tennis footwork to baseball. Just as the pitcher releases the ball, Pedroia does a split step so he can react quickly when the batter hits the ball.

As a teenager, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the eighth and current Emir of Qatar, was an enthusiastic tennis player. He had no political aspirations. He dreamed of becoming the Arabic Boris Becker. Instead of hitting shots on Centre Court at Wimbledon, the 37-year-old emir now finds himself in the centre of a far different firing zone: a suffocating economic and political boycott of his tiny, but wealthy country.

It’s time to grow up

Naomi Osaka says she has to change her “childish” ways if she is to reach her great potential. Japan’s highest-ranked woman at No. 46 in the world, Osaka was upset in her first-round match at the Japan Women’s Open in Tokyo by Kurumi Nara, then ranked No. 108.

Naomi Osaka says she has to change her “childish” ways if she is to reach her great potential.   -  Getty Images

“I originally thought I was going to have a lot of fun and just play well,” the always-quotable 20-year-old Osaka said. “But then when I started the match I was really nervous and then I felt a lot of pressure, and I guess I didn’t really cope with it that well. I went all childish and immature, which I really hope to change.” Nara raced to a 4-0 lead before Osaka battled back to 4-3. Osaka didn’t win another game and lost 6-3 6-0. “I just felt extremely tight. Hopefully, when I learn more and become a better player, that won’t happen anymore.”

On the subject of adult childishness, I would like to remind you of what tennis legend Chris Evert tweeted nearly a year ago to her 170,000 followers about the narcissistic tweeting of then President-elect Donald Trump: “This can no longer be about you, your photos, your Twitter, your SNL (“Saturday Night Live” TV programme) obsession. It’s now about your service and leadership.” If only the impulsive, vindictive Trump had heeded Evert’s advice.

What happened to the Next Gen?

If the Fabulous Four of men’s tennis ever fade or retire — and there are no signs of that for these 30-something wonders — Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios are the two players 22 or younger most likely to win Grand Slam titles. But before we get too excited about these Next Gen prospects in 2018, let’s look at their records in 2017. Their combined record at majors this year was a dismal 8-8.

What went wrong?

Zverev, ranked a misleading No. 4, went just 6-4, with his best result a fourth-round Wimbledon showing. The 20-year-old German boasts a huge first serve and a rock-solid backhand. Those weapons propelled him to Masters 1000 titles at Rome (beating Djokovic in the final) and Cincinnati (beating Federer in the final). Technically, the Big Z needs to improve his volley. Tactically, he needs to diversify his offense by coming to net more and incorporating angles and drop shots into his much-too predictable, one-dimensional power game. Both areas are crucial because, at 6’6”, Zverev knows he’ll never reach the top if he tries to out-steady, outrun, and outlast elite opponents.

No leading player has proved more unpredictable than 21st-ranked Kyrgios this century. But if his horrendous 2-4 record at the majors this year doesn’t jolt him to train and compete harder, then nothing will. The 22-year-old Australian will also have to ditch the trick-shot showboating and play smart, high-percentage tennis, particularly on the big points. Otherwise, Kyrgios will waste his terrific talent and regret it for the rest of his life.

What’s age got to do with it?

They’re not getting older, they’re getting better. How do Roger Federer and Venus Williams do it?

Federer, seemingly ageless though an ancient 36 for tennis, enjoyed by far his best season since 2009 by winning two Grand Slam and three Masters 1000 titles. Much of his success resulted from beating longtime nemesis Rafael Nadal four straight times after trailing 23-11 going into 2017.

Federer revealed he turned his rivalry against Nadal around by hitting his backhand inside the baseline and more aggressively. “I would always shank too many balls (against Nadal’s wicked topspin forehand),” said Federer. “It was hard for me to consistently just keep on attacking with the backhand. Because I have gotten used to returning (serve) that way, I think it’s also easier to play Rafa these days.”

Williams, young in spirit if not in body at 37, also turned back the calendar. She reached the Australian, Wimbledon, and WTA Finals Singapore finals for her most productive season since 2008. “I use a lot of sun protection, sunscreen. I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables,” explained Williams. That’s been the key to my success.”

Watching this Geriatric Generation, it’s hard to believe 1970s superstar Bjorn Borg once said, “Now that I’m 20, it’s downhill all the way, I suppose.”

Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates with the Billie Jean King trophy after defeating Venus Williams of the United States in the final of the WTA Finals Singapore.   -  GETTY IMAGES


Who says love means nothing in tennis?

“Where there is love, you are inspired, you can write poems, you can write music, you can play good tennis,” rhapsodized the romantic Andrei Medvedev, after reuniting with fellow pro Anke Huber and breaking a prolonged slump to reach the 1999 French Open final.

Love seems to have inspired world No. 3 Caroline Wozniacki, too. On Nov. 3, the comely, curvaceous Dane tweeted, “Happiest day of my life yesterday saying yes to my soulmate,” while displaying a hefty engagement ring on her left hand. The lucky man is handsome, 6’10” David Lee, a 12-year NBA veteran, who played with four teams and is now a free agent.

Four days earlier, Wozniacki, who started the year ranked No. 19, won the biggest tournament of her career, the WTA Finals.

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