The world’s top-ranked player disproves the adage that 80% of life is showing up
THE men’s tennis season is one of the most arduous slogs in professional sports. Most players kick off their season the first week of each new year in Australia, then travel the globe to compete multiple times a month in an attempt to qualify for the year-end championships, held in London in mid-November. The off-season is barely worthy of the name, and is often insufficient for competitors to recover from a year’s worth of nagging injuries, not to mention developing new skills and tactics for a fresh campaign. The tour is undergoing a health crisis of sorts, as Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, all victors of multiple grand-slam tournaments, are ageing and either absent or struggling to overcome physical woes. Some players—including Milos Raonic, a 27-year-old Canadian who is also on the comeback trail—attribute their absences to the excessive rigors of the schedule.
One man, however, appears to have discovered a way to avoid these pitfalls. Last month Roger Federer, who at 36 years old is at an age when most players have moved on to a second career, became the oldest ever man to attain the Association of Tennis Professionals’ (ATP) top overall ranking, despite playing a mere 13 tournaments over the 52-week ranking period. He skipped last year’s clay-court season entirely, ceding Roland Garros, one of the sport’s four premier events, to long-time rival Mr Nadal. Since reclaiming the top spot a month ago, he passed on a tournament in Dubai—further shortening his already stingy 2017 schedule—and held on to the number-one position by reaching the final last week in Indian Wells, before falling to Juan Martín del Potro. Mr Federer is the first man since the 1980s to earn the top spot despite playing fewer than 15 events in the previous 52 weeks.
The ATP’s ranking system doesn’t require that players compete every week, piling up fatigue and frequent-flyer miles in the style of Dominic Thiem, a young Austrian ranked seventh in the world, who has entered 25 tournaments in the past year. However, it does reward those who show up more often than Mr Federer has. The algorithm counts points earned on up to 18 occasions: the four majors (where 2,000 points are awarded to the winner), eight of the nine Masters-level tournaments (with 1,000 points for a title), up to four 500-level events (slightly lower-profile gatherings with correspondingly weaker draws), and two 250-level competitions. Most players, like Mr Thiem, choose to enter more than the minimum number of smaller tournaments, and in those cases, their best results are counted. Contesting fewer than 18 events, however, sharply limits one’s potential point total: Mr Federer’s current tally of 9,660 points, about 300 ahead of Mr Nadal’s, includes six zeroes for his “missing” events. Unlike an alternative rating system such as Elo, which ranks players based on their wins, losses, and quality of competition and better predicts future match results, the ATP’s formula offers a bonus simply for showing up.
Top players typically enter fewer events than the journeymen on tour, largely because the elites play more matches at the tournaments they enter. Since Mr Federer first took over the top spot in 2004, the average top-ranked player contested 18 draws over the course of a season. By contrast, nearly half of the players in the current top 100 have entered at least 25. Yet Mr Federer’s approach is radical even by the standards of the world’s best. His abbreviated schedule has allowed him to make history, offering sufficient rest for a nagging back injury so that he can call upon his best tennis when he takes the court.
Nonetheless, it is partially an accident of history that a 12-event season could land a player atop the ranking table. The maximum number of points achievable under the current system is 21,000, but Mr Federer’s zeroes lower his own potential best to 14,750—almost 2,000 points lower than Mr Djokovic tallied in 2015. While it is remarkable that the 36-year-old has amassed nearly two-thirds of the possible points in the events he has entered, even that dominant effort is barely enough. Of the 432 sets of rankings issued since the ATP’s 2009 rule overhaul, Mr Federer’s 9,660 points would have earned the top spot only 18 times. Just five weeks ago, Mr Nadal held the top spot (with a more conventional 17 tournaments played)—and had the Spaniard not missed Indian Wells due to injury, he could have halted Mr Federer’s stay at number one without even winning the title. A young player gunning for the top spot in the rankings would be foolish to restrict his schedule so sharply; the margin of error is simply too thin.
Regardless of the vicissitudes of the ATP algorithm, the Swiss maestro is probably the best player in tennis these days, and he is certainly top dog on his preferred surfaces of hard and grass courts. His loss on Sunday to Mr del Potro was only his first of the season, making his 17-match season-starting winning streak the longest of an already storied career. While the race for the top rankings position surely offers him some extra motivation, the reasoning behind his shortened schedule may be found elsewhere.
When Mr Federer isn’t entered in an ATP event, he is still often found on a televised tennis court. Charity fundraisers such as his Match for Africa series, the latest instance of which was held earlier this month ahead of the Indian Wells event, can be written off as glorified practice sessions. But Mr Federer has also signed up for his share of more intense—and extremely lucrative—exhibitions, including Australia’s season-opening Hopman Cup and his own brainchild, the Laver Cup, which held its inaugural edition last fall in Prague. Both of the latter two events featured several hotly contested matches against elite opponents, yet neither offered any ATP ranking points.
After two decades as a professional and a record 20 grand-slam titles, Mr Federer’s towering personal brand confers more value on the ATP No. 1 ranking than the ranking offers in return—a circumstance applicable to only a handful of tennis players in history. Whether seeded first or 17th, as he was when he won the 2017 Australian Open, Mr Federer is the biggest draw in tennis. A limited tour schedule allows him to preserve his body and improve the odds that he’ll continue to pad his records, and it also gives him the opportunity to further transcend the ATP, lending his personal prestige to off-book endeavours like the nascent Laver Cup. The latter better serves his purposes than dutifully checking off his ATP dance card with appearances in, say, Munich and Gstaad, where he stopped as an aspiring top-tenner 15 years ago. As Mr Federer curtails his ATP schedule with an eye on his unique position, we can expect the rest of the tour’s professionals to continue chasing the same incentives they always have: more tournaments, more potential ranking points, and—sooner rather than later—a chance to retake the number-one spot from Mr Federer’s half-hearted grasp.
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This article was published and provided by The Economist.