Emma Raducanu woke up Monday morning ranked 23rd in the world. Her journey through the complex Women’s Tennis Association rankings is the topic of a new piece by Aron Solomon. The Editor for Today’s Esquire explains how the WTA ranking system works, how it is inextricably tied to money and sponsorship opportunities, and why the future is blindingly bright for this amazing new crop of women on the WTA Tour.
Coming off what was arguably the most amazing and dramatic run in modern tennis history, 18-year-old Brit, Emma Raducanu, not only earned the most Women’s Tennis Association points anyone has ever earned in one tournament, she is assured to lose points from the same tournament next year, even if she defends her championship.
The WTA awards the winner of the US Open, a Grand Slam event and the second-most prestigious tournament in the world, behind Wimbledon, 2,000 ranking points. But Raducanu actually had to win three qualifying matches just to make it to the main draw of the US Open, as she entered the tournament ranked 170th in the world. Her qualifying victories gave her 40 points, for a US Open total of 2,040.
If she repeats as champion next year, she would earn 2,000 points, not 2,040, which could very slightly hurt her ranking.
For a singles player, the WTA ranking system is a 52-week, cumulative system. A player’s ranking is determined by her results in a maximum of 16 tournaments for singles play.
Per a revision of WTA rules for the COVID-19 global pandemic:
“WTA Rankings became frozen as of March 16, 2020, allowing ranking points to extend beyond the traditional 52-week window so that a player’s world ranking would not be impacted due to the suspension.”
But we are now back on track and over the next year, Ms. Raducanu and all of the other WTA players will follow the traditional 52-week ranking format.
Not every tournament counts the same as far as points go – far from it actually. Essentially, there are tiers of tournaments on the WTA Tour, with tour points and prize money pretty closely aligned to the importance of the event.
The top tournaments for WTA points are the Grand Slams (in chronological order during the calendar year: Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open). These are followed in point importance by the WTA Finals. Next are a certain elite group of WTA 1000 tournaments (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Beijing), followed by the rest of the still very important WTA 1000 tournaments (Cincinnati, Doha/Dubai, Rome, Montreal/Toronto, Wuhan).
But that’s not it. While not the top tier tournaments, there are other categories of tournaments that are still important and allow WTA players to earn these critical points. These include WTA 500 events, WTA 250, WTA 125k, and ITF events.
It’s important to remember that in professional tennis, money and rankings are inextricably linked. While players don’t earn money directly from ranking points (they’re not like air miles that you can redeem for cash or rewards), the more WTA points you have, the higher you are ranked. The higher you are ranked, the easier it is for you to get a spot in the draw of the tournaments around the world with the most prize money (yes, and the most WTA points, in what can be either a vicious or divine circle). And, finally, the higher you are ranked, the easier it is to cash in on massive endorsement deals, as players such as embattled former world number 1 Naomi Osaka have.
Let’s look at our US Open champion as an example. Emma Raducanu came into the US Open ranked 150th in the world by the WTA. Again, a player’s ranking is always quantitative, never qualitative, meaning that they are ranked solely in order of WTA points earned per the formula above, not according to what a panel of judges or the fans think about them.
Entering the Top 150 was already a significant jump for Raducanu, who played Wimbledon this summer ranked number 338. Her fantastic run to the quarterfinals on the hallowed grass propelled her to the Top 150. But after her magical three weeks in the city that never sleeps, Randucanu woke up on Monday morning ranked number 23 in the world.
Why is this important? For a lot of tangible and intangible reasons, but primarily because Emma Raducanu won’t have to play qualifying matches for a long time or maybe ever again. Some tournaments have a main draw of 128 players, some 64, and some 32. Each tournament reserves a couple of spots for wildcard entries (as Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association granted to Raducanu for Wimbledon this year), and several spots for qualifiers.
The other spots are claimed by players who want to play in that tournament, with preference by ranking spot. Now, not every player plays every tournament. Players are always free to pick and choose where they want to play. But let’s say in a tournament of 64 in the main draw, that there are maybe 55 spots not reserved for qualifiers or wildcards. And let’s say the Top 55 WTA ranked players all want to play. If you’re ranked 56, you have to enter the qualification rounds (“the qualies”) or ask for a wildcard (which you might or might not get).
Qualifying is really hard. There are a LOT of highly-skilled players today in the WTA. Not 20 or 30, but close to 200. The depth in the women’s tennis game in late 2021 is the best in history. Period. Even three weeks ago, most experts would have dismissed the idea that someone ranked in the 300s at the beginning of the summer could win a Grand Slam, but here we are. Qualifying is full of hungry players – literally full of players who need to earn enough to eat and have somewhere to stay for the coming week.
Raducanu not only had to win 10 matches rather than 7 to win the US Open, she did so without losing a set, which is an accomplishment of historic proportions. So not needing to qualify means that she can play more tournaments (qualifying begins while the previous week’s tournaments are still on) and even if she loses in the first round of the main draw, she can earn points and money.
So after what has been quite a summer in women’s tennis, one with many ups and certainly a few notable downs, the year ahead for the WTA and the amazing athletes and personalities who represent the present and future of the game seems very bright for those who play the game not only on the court but in the rankings as well.
About Aron Solomon
Aron Solomon, JD, is the Head of Strategy and Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in TechCrunch, The Hill, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, The Boston Globe, and many other leading publications.