Favoritism in men’s tennis

Favoritism in men’s tennis

For those that follow men’s tennis, you know it’s been dominated by 3 players for more than 15 years. Out of 60 grand slam tournaments that have been player, 85% of them have been won by these three players.

If tennis is not your sport, imagine that a single team or player won 85% of every major event for 15 years. It would get a little boring after awhile.

First off, it’s worth mentioning that these three players (Djokovic, Federer, Nadal) are exceptional players and all work very hard. Perhaps they are the best three tennis players of all time.

But tennis has a lot of interesting and subtle rules that assist top players in retaining their dominance. For each of these rules, there’s a good case to be made that it’s positive for fans and definitely positive for the bottom line of the sport of tennis. But taken together, they take some of the drama out of the sport.

Also, you have to wonder what could have been? In a less rigged system, would we be seeing some amazing new player that is better than the Big 3 are considered? Would there be incredible new rivalries?

Background

There are over 60 tennis tournaments every year. Most last a week, while the 4 major tournaments last 2 weeks. Some weeks have more than one tournament scheduled.

These tournaments are on 6 continents and players looking to challenge the top players really have no choice but to play as many as possible.

You can’t just show up and play in the main draw of a tennis tournament. Having a high ranking will get you automatic entry and there are wild-cards, but for everyone else they must play in a qualifying tournament (or optionally a pre-qualifying if there are enough entrants).

Expenses

It can be expensive being a tennis player, especially travel and housing. Gear can be costly if you are unsponsored. And to reach the top, you probably want to have an excellent coach and possibly a trainer as well. Not having these definitely puts you at a disadvantage as most of the top players have them.

Undoubtedly, some players come from a background with money so they have a built-in advantage. But tennis rules don’t do much to help level the playing field at all. Many team sports such as Major League Baseball and the NFL have salary caps or tax excessive spending on salaries to make sure teams don’t dominate just by having deeper pockets.

It’s really hard to estimate the annual expenses of an up-and-coming tennis player. If I just make numbers up, I’d guess $200,000 in travel expenses to go to 40 tournaments. A great coach would be a minimum of $100,000 I would guess. This doesn’t cover gear or just having money for yourself to live your life.

Prize money

Much like CEO pay, winning a tennis tournament can garner you a paycheck sometimes more than 80 times that of a first round entrant or more than 500 times that of someone entering the qualifying tournament. Players in pre-qualifying typically get nothing.

Here’s a breakdown of prize money for the 4 different tournament types.

Tournament typeTournaments per yearMoney to winnerMoney to tournament entrantMoney to qualifier
Grand slam4$3.8 million$54,000$8,000
ATP 1000 (Masters)9$1.4 million$16,425$3,395
ATP 50013$550,000$10,946$2,058
ATP 25036$89,000$5,075$1,145

So, it may sound like a lot of money at first glance, but if you’re incurring the expenses of going to tournaments and need a coach to help you move up the rankings, it all adds up. And if you show up at an ATP 250 tournament and fail to qualify, instead of $1,145 (will that cover airfare?) you get nothing.

If you look at the typical earnings of players, this gives you an idea of the odds the 250th ranked player in the world faces trying to move up the ranks.

RankingAnnual earnings
#1$9.2 million
#10$1.9 million
#50$777,000
#100$455,000
#250$91,499
#500$17,275

Based on my made up number of $300,000 a year in expenses, only the top #100 players in the world could even afford to survive and take a crack at moving up. And that means no money left over for themselves. Some are fortunate enough to have sponsors, so that can help.

Skipping tournaments

First off, it’s important to know that there are 19 mandatory tournaments a year, if your ranking is high enough to qualify. There’s a month off at the end of the year, but otherwise, it’s packed with tournaments. It can be a grueling schedule and there are often an uncomfortable number of injured players.

Players that have been on the tour for many years are allowed to skip tournaments. You might think that this hurts a player because they forego points they could have gained. For a couple reasons, this sometimes is not important.

First, a player may simply have too large a lead over those that are trailing them so skipping some points doesn’t hurt them.

Second, since points are awarded on a rolling 12-month basis (see section below), if you did poorly in a tournament a year ago, you stand to lose very few points if you don’t participate this year.

Skipping tournaments are allowed for having played 600 tour matches, being 31 or older, or playing 12 years on the tour. You can skip one ATP 1000 (Masters) tournament for each milestone, or if you hit all 3 then you can skip all 9 of them, providing up to 10 weeks of rest. What a huge difference that could make!

This provides an unfair benefit to the most experienced players who are often also the top players. You don’t play 600 matches without winning a lot of matches. If a top player is getting injured, that speaks to their fitness and conditioning, so why should they get an edge over up-and-coming players who may have whipped their bodies into better shape.

Only the best minor tournament results count

A very little known fact of the rankings system is that only your best 6 results from ATP 500 and ATP 250 tournaments count towards your point total. Given there are 49 of these tournaments, that’s quite significant! This is one of the worst rules that favors top players.

These smaller tournaments are how the hard-working players of tomorrow try to move up. You don’t start out being able to qualify for the big tournaments so you have to start small. The top players often skip these smaller tournaments as they simply don’t need the points.

This rule quite obviously benefits the top players. They can rest during minor tournaments because they know the up-and-coming players have a cap on the number of points they can gain.

As a hypothetical, let’s say a player wins 5 tournaments at the ATP 500 level and 10 tournaments at the ATP 250 level. Instead of getting 5,000 points, they are capped at 2,750 points. This margin could move a player from #100 to #10 in the world!

This is a very contrived example just to make a point, but this really does cement the lead of the top players and put a cap on the amount of point gain the lower ranked players can earn in a year.

Protected ranking

This is another little known rule. Just like with college basketball, players get seeding into tournaments. This ensures their early rounds are easier opponents and that they won’t meet the toughest opponents till later in the tournament. Also, the fans and tournaments like that it’s more likely their favorite players will meet in the final matches.

When a player gets injured, their ranking gets protected. Their ranking will still drop while they are injured, but when they come back, they basically pretend their protected ranking is their real ranking when it comes to seeding for a tournament.

The result of this is that a top player has an easier time regaining their ranking after an injury. Instead of it being an opportunity for lower ranked players to exploit the weakness of a top player, the top player gets a boost.

Imagine instead of being injured that you just have a really rough patch. You’re playing just awful and your ranking drops. How do you get back into tournaments? A lot of really, really hard work. A lot of playing really tough opponents in the first round because your ranking has dropped.

Whether a player is sick, injured, or just playing badly, it should be an equal struggle to get back. Players at the top tend to have wider point margins between them and those chasing them, so this rule gives them an edge.

Lower ranked players don’t benefit from protected rankings because low rankings don’t get you seeded or automatically entered into tournaments.

Ranking points

This is very similar to the disparity in pay between winning a tournament versus getting into the tournament. But in this case, it’s an impediment to rising in the ranks.

Tournament typePoints to winPoints for first round
Grand slam200010
ATP 1000 (Masters)100010
ATP 50050010
ATP 2502505

Winning the tournament gets you anywhere from 50 to 200 times as many points. One thing to consider is that, due to the seeding system, an up-and-coming player is likely to be paired with a very difficult first round opponent. More on this later.

I don’t know whether the current system is fair or not, but it does seem too skewed against those trying to move up the ranks.

One interesting alternative on this would be to make the points based partially or completely on who you beat. So, instead of 10 points for beating Federer in a huge longshot match in round one, you get a bounty of 100 points. Or perhaps you gain a fraction of your opponents points if you win.

It seems like there should be a bonus for beating a player much better than you are.

Fallout from earnings disparity

Due to the huge prize money discrepancy, top players have a huge advantage in being able to affording some very extravagant things. For example, some pay hundreds of thousands annually for detailed statistics about themselves and their opponents.

It’s not unfair that they can do this, but if the #50 player could afford this, imagine how their chances at getting to the top would increase. The value of this data is immense. Pick anything you want to know how your opponent plays or reacts to anything.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tennis/2019/07/01/exclusive-data-analytics-giving-top-players-like-federer-djokovic/

Uneven rule enforcement

The top players do get special treatment from officials and the rules are bent for them. An easy example is Rafa Nadal and the 25 second rule between serves.

Nadal’s AVERAGE time between points is above the 25 second limit. Ponder that one for a second. This means they basically should be forfeiting each match within the first service game. But you’d be lucky to find a match where Nadal has ever gotten more than one time violation.

An example from the woman’s side. How many players could get away with threatening to murder a line judge, like top-ranked Serena Williams did, and get a minuscule fine and no suspension? The line judge involved was terrified, emotionally scarred, and has been allowed to skip any Serena Williams match.

Top players are routinely given extra time to challenge line calls, while lower ranked players are told their time is up. It’s hard to come up with statistics to back up some of these claims, though.

Roof over courts

This is controversial because having the roof over the main courts at some tournaments means more tennis to watch on rainy days! However, it’s a clear benefit to the top players.

The top players are typically assigned to the large courts that are more likely to have roofs. This makes logical sense. When the tournament is rained out repeatedly, the top players get to play their matches on their regular schedule, typically with a day of rest between matches.

All the lesser players are forced to play matches two days in a row or sometimes even two in the same day, because they aren’t ranked high enough to be on the courts with roofs.

One way to make this fairer would be to use the covered courts only if there are no matches happening on uncovered courts at the same time. A radical alternative would be to play shorter matches and squeeze more onto the covered courts.

Late in a tournament, the matches are often all happening on covered courts, so this is no longer an issue.

Seeding

Most sports use a seeding system. This is designed to balance out the draw and to make it easier for top players or teams to make it further, so they can meet in the final matches.

The top seeded players in tennis often get first round byes as well. This is a nice reward to top players who may not even have time to fly to the first round match on the next tournament if they just won the previous week’s tournament. Also, it gives them some rest.

The downsides exist, though. Lower-ranked players, qualifiers, and wildcards get paired with top seeded players in the first round. They are very likely to lose and forfeit the extra cash and points they need to keep their career alive.

I would also argue that it leads to a very boring first part of the tournament as many matches are unbalanced. There is a huge gulf between the top few players and a player in the top 20s in the rankings.

I doubt seeding will ever go away as it does have many benefits, especially to top players, tournaments, and fans of the top players, but it sure would be interesting to experiment with a tournament where there are no seeded players.

There could be a lot of surprises!

Annual point system

Tennis currently uses a point system that is a rolling 12-month period. Essentially, you accumulate points over a 12-month period. Then, when you play in the same tournament from last yqar, you give up the points you earned last year (if any) and add in the points you gained this year.

This causes some bizarre anomalies where a player may win a tournament, but their opponent moves ahead of them in the rankings. Also, it puts a lot of pressure on those that did well last year to do at least as well this year, so that does add some interesting drama. Overall, though, the system is confusing and people don’t really understand it.

But the biggest problem is that the rankings are much more rigid over time. The previous system reset everyone to zero in January and then you started earning points. For the first six months of the year at least, there was a lot of movement.

Imagine you follow baseball and the rankings in a division don’t change for months. Much less exciting that if there is a lot of movement.

The system benefits the top players that have comfortable leads in points. If they have a niggling injury and they are about to play in a tournament they skipped or did poorly in for the last year, it’s a no-brainer to skip it. In a system where every point could make a difference and the past is irrelevant, this pressures the top players more.

I think tennis should consider going back to the annual system. Perhaps at the end of the year, the same top players would bubble to the top, but wouldn’t it be more exciting during the year at least? Also, there is a psychology involved in being a top player, but having a poor start to the year and seeing yourself lower in the rankings. This gives an edge to those trying to take you down.

Points for ATP Finals but not Next Gen

This one is probably the most egregious in my mind. Every year there are two sets of “finals” that are played.

The ATP Finals invites what it considers to be the top 8 players in the world. They play a round-robin tournament, then semi-finals, and a final. The winner can earn up to 1,500 points.

The Next Gen ATP Finals invites what it considers to be the top 8 players in the world that are 21-and-under. No points are awarded. Clearly, these players are significantly lower ranked and are hoping to be the next top players.

Both tournaments are mandatory. The unfairness here is not necessarily that one awards points and the other doesn’t. The problem is that the ATP Finals awards points at all.

Here’s an exclusive tournament, only for the top players, and they can pad their already high point totals. No one else is allowed to compete to enter.

It’s hard to think of an equivalent silliness in another sport, where you get awarded points for playing a match that other teams aren’t even allowed to play.

Conclusion

There’s an argument to be made that the Big 3 players are a one-in-a-lifetime situation due entirely to their incredible talent. But I think that’s only part of the picture. I think tennis gives them subtle and more obvious help along the way and makes the playing field unfair for those looking to unseat the top players.

Overall, I think these rules are bad for tennis. People love upsets and drama and vigorous competition. And men’s tennis is lacking these things right now.