Is it fair that a top 10 player can gets wildcards and a protected ranking, while a lower player can’t?

(Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) /

The concept of a tennis ranking is quite a simple formula. One can expect that the 40th ranked player would be the 40th best player on the planet. However, often players who have been injured (or in terms of the women’s game, players that have had to reasonably take time off due to childbirth) have re-entered competition with an averaged ranking. The protected ranking is determined by averaging the rank of a player over the three months after an injury. On the surface, this seems like a completely fair system which provides athletes with a reasonable assurance that years of hard work cannot be undone by 1 freak injury.

However, does such a formula skew the rankings in favour of top players only? For instance, how would that player fare against all the other competition in tennis-if they had to start from the bottom and compete against ITF players week after week after week? Perhaps the tennis rankings can be sometimes be a reflection more of the peak levels of active players. What if an ITF player ranked 1000, for instance, was hypothetically given a ranking of 20? They would then be given direct entry to grand slams and other big tournaments. Wouldn’t they most likely bring their ranking far higher than where they currently sit? Such an example is given because a top player from a year ago, post-injury, could hypothetically be playing worse than a player ranked 200th in the world. However, because they can work off a former ranking, confidence is brought up far more quickly than if they had to start from, say, rank 100.

What if a former top 10 player had lost all their points- and was expected to return back to competition without protected rankings or wildcards? Would they still make it back to the top 100? This phenomenon has been expressed a number of times over the past 25 years in men’s and women’s tennis. Many times a top 10 or top 20 player has technically no longer justified, hypothetically, being seeded 10th or 20th at a tournament (post form slump or injury). Either through a protected ranking or wildcards, former top players are often afforded somewhat of an advantage over the lower ranked field, as they can claim a protected seeding at a tournament and not have to face fellow top players at grand slams until later rounds. They are also given direct entry to Masters 1000 events, where a lower ranked player would have to go back entirely to the drawing board. As well as this, a lower ranked player would not be given the cushion of playing with a protected seeding (which is based on a ranking they had up to a year ago) -when their form could have been completely different to their current level.

One the one hand, the protected ranking system is likely the most fair outcome to ensure players are given every opportunity to compete at a level closer to their ability. On the other hand- does the ranking system give a leg up to previously established names? Adding to this, better known names are often afforded wildcards more than obscure players. This makes complete sense-but at the same time- does it favour bigger players over the less known names?

One can wonder, if the 1000th ranked player in the world was hypothetically given the 50th ranking, would they somehow improve and perhaps become a mainstay in the top 100 for years to come? This very idea is often why the underdogs at grand slam level are so easy to root for. Sometimes, all it can take is one dream run at a tournament to propel a player’s career. Looking back over the years, look what those dream Australian Open runs did for players such as Mischa Zverev, Aslan Karatsev and Hyeon Chung? Mischa Zverev then went on to reach number 25 in the world not long after- while Karatsev held an astonishing career high ranking of number 14 in the world in 2021. At his peak, he was in the running to compete at Nitto. Chung also held a respectable career high ranking of world number 19 at his peak.

So, all in all, does the protected ranking system distort the true rankings of players in the world and skew the rankings in favour of former top players?