Home » ‘Playing in fear’: Why rankings points mean everything

‘Playing in fear’: Why rankings points mean everything

‘Playing in fear’: Why rankings points mean everything

“I remember this time last year, I was up at Granby [in Canada], playing a Challenger, trying to make the qualification cut. I remember thinking about it – and I ended up losing my second-round match, 7-6 in the third.

“If I’d won that match, I was probably going to be in the New York qualifying, and I ended up missing it by six, so I learned my lesson there. This year, I remember playing in Taipei and I had to win that Challenger to make the main draw in ‘Wimby’ [which he did], and that was a dream week.”

Reigning Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova lost in the first round this year.Credit: Getty Images

The stress involved can be suffocating, particularly the 52-week rolling rankings system, used by both the ATP and WTA tours, where players effectively “defend” their points from a year earlier.

This is one reason why sports psychologists and wellbeing gurus have become so prominent.

Reigning Wimbledon women’s champion Markéta Vondroušová and American Chris Eubanks, a surprise men’s quarter-finalist in 2023, will be the big losers on that front from this year’s tournament.

They both exited the grasscourt major in the first round, meaning Vondroušová will tumble at least 11 spots from No.6, while it is even worse for Eubanks, who will freefall more than 60 places to 128 or worse. His top-100 ranking is gone.

How do tennis rankings work?

In simple terms, a player’s ranking is determined by the points they earn at accredited tour events over the previous 52 weeks.

Tournaments are graded: those with more prestige or a higher standard of competition offer more points, with the four grand slams offering the most. The further a player advances, the more points they earn.

No matter how many tournaments a player participates in, only their best results count towards their ranking —  for men, it’s their best 19; for women, it’s 16.

“It’s tough to go out defending the title. I was really nervous,” Vondroušová said. “I feel like even if you don’t want to think about it, you think about it all the time.”

Vukic has never won a major title like Vondroušová but knows the weight of defending a strong result from 12 months prior.

He admits he was “playing in fear” at the start of this year and a “victim” of focusing too much on the numbers.

“I’m sure a lot of players are going through that,” Vukic said. “Everyone is like, ‘I’m scared to go back to Challengers’. It’s that fear of, ‘I want to keep being at these nice tournaments’ … but if you have that mindset, you go out there and play with so much pressure, and it’s not enjoyable.”

Belgian player Zizou Bergs watches the live rankings religiously.

Belgian player Zizou Bergs watches the live rankings religiously.Credit: Getty Images

The creation of a live rankings website has transformed the experience of tracking progress from match to match for players, fans and media alike.

Some players avoid the site, whereas others, such as Belgian Zizou Bergs, who made his top-100 debut last month thanks to reaching the last 32 at Roland-Garros, “constantly” follow it.

Loading

“If you say at school, ‘I want to be top 100’, which I had to say to skip lessons at school to go training, everybody is looking at you like, ‘Who do you think you are?’,” Bergs said.

“We’re chasing it so hard. It’s such a tough ride that only you as a person, as a tennis player, can experience and tell to other people. May or may not, they believe it. But it’s a wonderful journey.”

Smith, now 35 and a doubles specialist competing at his 12th Wimbledon championships, had his first chance to crack the singles top 100 against Israeli Dudi Sela in the 2015 Vancouver Challenger final.

Sela beat him in a tight contest that day, and Smith went straight to New York, where he qualified for the US Open then drew Russian former world No.8 Mikhail Youzhny. Again, a victory over Youzhny would have been enough, but a four-set loss followed.

The last such scenario came at the Knoxville Challenger against Bjorn Fratangelo, but it was the same result.

Loading

Smith defeated Fratangelo three times either side of that match, but none of those had the same stakes. Now three years removed from being a serious singles player, he will finish his career with a best ranking of No.108.

“It was a bit disappointing but at the end of the day, I get to travel and play the sport,” Smith said.

“It took me a while, but it’s one of those things I put behind me because no one’s going to be like, ‘Oh, you only got to 108?’ I will remember the days when I played 12 Wimbledons, and qualified for Wimbledon [singles] twice.”

John-Patrick Smith (left) is a doubles specialist now but was once on the verge of a top-100 singles ranking.

John-Patrick Smith (left) is a doubles specialist now but was once on the verge of a top-100 singles ranking.Credit: Eddie Jim

Another Australian, Olivia Rogowska, who regularly spoke about the mental demons she struggled with during her career, quit the sport at age 28 after the 2020 Australian Open.

Her career-high ranking was No.102, and she had numerous chances to win matches and join the tour’s elite, but it can prove too much for some.

For others, finally breaking through can be the launching pad for far greater things. American star Jessica Pegula has reached the quarter-finals at all four majors and is a top-five staple, but she spent seven years stuck between 100 and 200 before finally earning a double-digit ranking in 2019.

Alex de Minaur is gunning for the top five.

Alex de Minaur is gunning for the top five.Credit: Getty Images

“I remember [the top 100] being this huge hurdle, then when I did it, I was like, ‘OK, that’s it? Like, that’s all it took?’,” Pegula said. “It was hard, but I think it’s one of those things where you have this amazing goal and then once you reach it, you realise, ‘Wow, why was I stressing out so much about that?’”

The goalposts have shifted for Vukic, too. Like with everything in tennis, once one goal is achieved, the next is never far away.

“I don’t want to cruise at 60 or 70 in the world. I want to maximise what I can, and keep pushing and go into those 30s, 20s, and see how far I can go,” Vukic said. “[Achieving your goal] shouldn’t just be, ‘OK, great, now I can sit back and relax’.”

It is a similar story for Alex de Minaur. He often spoke about his top-10 ambition before accomplishing it in January, then told this masthead in March: “The top five is my next goal.”

Loading

De Minaur’s countryman, Jordan Thompson, has spent all but one week this year inside the top 50. But he is on the chase, too, specifically for a first-time seeding at a grand slam (top 32), which he would have realised at Wimbledon if he had won his semi-final at Queen’s Club barely a week before.

“You’ve just got to let it go,” Thompson said, something tennis players will tell you is easier said than done.

Marc McGowan is at Wimbledon with the support of Tennis Australia.

Watch Wimbledon 2024 from July 1 live and exclusively free on Nine and 9Now with every match streaming ad-free, live and on demand with centre court in 4K on Stan Sport.

News, results and expert analysis from the weekend of sport sent every Monday. Sign up for our Sport newsletter.