By Nick Carter
When I started doing the research for this piece, the original purpose was to see how many players have a win against a world number one against their name (since computer rankings began in the 1970s). I quickly discovered this list would be way too big but I started noticing the rankings of those beating number ones on the men’s side through history were lower than I expected. I then decided to isolate the “Big Three” era to see if the numbers were significantly different.For clarity, I believe the “Big Three” era began in 2004around when Roger Federer won the Australian Open to become world number one for the first time. Because I thought it might make an interesting comparison piece, I decided to look at the WTA as well. During the process of collating all of this, I came across an interesting number: 165.
During the period from 01/01/2004 to 31/12/2021, the number one ranked ATP player lost 165 matches. By ‘lost’, this only includes completed matches and not defaults or retirements. 165 matches where another player closed out the victory against, according to the ranking formula, the best player in the world. Interestingly, during the same period, the number one ranked WTA player has also been defeated 165 times.
This has made me massively rethink the modern era of tennis and the standard it takes to reach world number one. If a world number one is just as likely to lose in the men’s game or the women’s game, have the “Big Three” not been as dominant as we thought? Or is it that the top players on the WTA Tour are stronger than we think?
In the 18 calendar years this period covers, there have been 17 WTA players ranked at number one (Serena Williams, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo, Lindsay Davenport, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, DinaraSafina, Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka and Ash Barty). By contrast there were just five players at the top of the ATP: The “Big Three” of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, plus the “Two Andy’s” of Roddick and Murray. It is tempting to think the standard is higher in the men’s game because the gatekeepers at the top have been more consistent.
However, the fact that the world number one on both tours has lost an even number of times during the period 2004-2021 suggests that in fact, no matter who the player is, it takes the same effort to achieve the ultimate upset. The issue the WTA number ones have found is that they haven’t been able to maintain the required level for as long or as consistently as the ATP “Big Three”. The exception to this of course is the extraordinary champion that is Serena Williams, who has justifiably been the biggest women’s tennis star for almost 20 years. For me, this doesn’t highlight weakness, but just how unusually strong Williams, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been. After all, very few players have been able to consistently win for the course of over a decade. Only Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Margaret Court, Chris Evert and Andre Agassi can be said to have done this as well. These players are the exception, not the rule. That is part of what makes them all-time greats, not just of their eras.
The point I am trying to make here is that the number one players on both tours deserve equal respect for their achievements, at least whilst they are ranked at the top. Not everyone has to be a record breaker. If you average out the 165 losses across the 18 seasons, the world number one generally loses around 9 matches a year, which is still pretty good going for a year on tour. By that score, if a single player was to have that kind of season, they’d win about half the tournaments they entered, or win a major or two that season with a couple of 1000 titles on top.
Of course, the next question is what kind of quality of opponent does the number one player of each tour often fall to? After all, if they both lose with the same amount of regularity, but the ATP ‘Big Three’ only lose to each other whilst the WTA number one can often be beaten by the number 100, then that could be a better indication of the quality at the peak of tennis.
The numbers do reveal something about this, but not quite what you think. During 2004-2021, when the ATP number one player lost, 90.3% of the time it was to an opponent ranked inside the top 50. This is again, exactly the same statistic on the WTA. 90.3% of the time the top ranked women’s player lost a match, it has to been to someone in the top 50.
This shows that these mega upsets of players ranked really low upsetting the world number one are in fact just as rare across both tours. In fact, someone outside the top 100 pulling off this kind of upset has only happened 5 times on either tour during 2004-2021.
This has also made me rethink how I see the tours as a whole, not just at the headline level. Being ranked in the top 50 is actually a bigger achievement than many make it out to be, and we should emphasise their quality as much as Top 20 or even Top 10. If someone is ranked top 50, the difference in level between them and the number one is not that much. What truly separates them is their consistency of achieving their peak performance. Suddenly, Ash Barty’s loss to Shelby Rogers in the US Open 2021 isn’t as big of a surprise on paper (in context it remains a significant upset though).
The variance in standard of losses that we see between the ATP and WTA comes within the top 50. In recent years, it is clear that the ATP number one is less vulnerable to those outside the top 10 compared to the WTA. 56.36% of their losses during 2004-2021 were to top ten players. In comparison, 36.97% of losses sustained by the women’s world number one were to fellow top ten players, hardly an insignificant percentage but nowhere near the majority of cases.
However, the gap is less significant when it comes to top 20 players. 68.48% of ATP number one losses were to top 20 players, whilst for the WTA the figure is 62.42%. To be clear, these figures also include losses to top 10 players. Nevertheless, we can say that the majority of the time on both tours, when the top ranked player loses it is to someone ranked in the top 20. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone following the WTA, who have had a very competitive top 20 field for a couple of years now. Certainly, anyone ranked in that region is a definite competitor. I think the ATP is heading in this direction too, following the recent successes at Masters level for Cameron Norrie, Taylor Fritz and Carlos Alcaraz.
There’s been a lot of statistics and opinions thrown around here, so let’s get to the point. Essentially, I am saying we need to re-evaluate how much respect we give to three groups of people: WTA number ones (in comparison to the ATP), players ranked 11-20 and also players ranked 21-50 on both tours. Just because there have been almost a new WTA number one every year on average, it doesn’t mean there is less quality on the women’s tour. It takes the same amount of effort to be the best player over 12 months, just because someone can’t maintain it for another 12 doesn’t make them less talented or impressive a player. It certainly doesn’t make them less of a star. A number one player is just as hard to beat in the context of either tour. Either they have the same required level, or the ATP number one is just as liable to have a bad day as the WTA leader.
We should also widen our scope for threats to the top players beyond the top ten. Again, in the ATP it has been all about that elite group mopping up titles. Now, that group is doubling in size, as it has already done in the WTA. Top 20 players still regularly find themselves in the business end of tournaments, that’s how they earned their ranking in the first place. The fact they are still very consistent in their win rates would suggest an explanation as to why they are responsible for most of the cases where the number one player has been taken down. When doing pre-tournament predictions, I will be looking at who’s in form from the top 20 to see who the big contenders are.
Finally, top players have to be seen as vulnerable to anyone ranked in the top 50. Anyone outside of that ranking would have to be considered a real upset. I’m not saying top 50 players have to be seen as automatic title contenders, not all of them have the required consistency for this. But on any given day, they are certainly capable of playing tennis with the very best of them. As sports fans, we prefer the idea of a field being competitive. The smaller the realistic pool of potential winners there are, the slower burn an event is. In a scenario where the top 50 are given more respect, suddenly half the draw are in contention for most tournaments (or even a whole draw at most 1000 events). Again, this has felt more of the case in the women’s game. I may have commented at Wimbledon and the US Open last year that half the field could be seen as title contenders. That’s part of what makes WTA tennis so intriguing to me at the moment, although don’t get me wrong I am also very excited to see big stars emerging and big rivalries developing at the very top. Going back to my original point, despite their relative lack of consistency, most fans and especially the media need to better respect the talent of top 50 players on both tours. The numbers are there to show they can perform at an elite level so it shouldn’t be a massive surprise any more.