The WTA tour has seen five different world number ones this season. Two of them did not qualify for the WTA Finals in Singapore. Two more fell at the first hurdle. And the final member of the quintet was slain in the semifinals.
One of the five women referenced was 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams – who held a 0-0 win/loss record as the world’s top ranked player this season after stepping aside due to pregnancy in January. The American’s absence from Singapore is therefore perfectly natural. Still, it is just another statistic that puts into perspective the inconsistency of the WTA tour this season.
Exciting it may have been. Some brilliant clashes there certainly have been. But a cloud of fluctuation and frustration has drifted over the entire year.
Three talented players have assailed to the heights of the WTA rankings for the first time in their careers this year. Flat-hitting, big-serving Karolina Pliskova did so first, crashing out in the second round of Wimbledon before other results secured her status. Eventual Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza next assumed the crown, her fourth round US Open loss to Petra Kvitova not quite catastrophic as Pliskova bowed out in the quarters. And finally, year-end world no. 1 Simona Halep stepped up to take her turn by reaching the China Open final.
Halep lost that Premier final to an in-form Caroline Garcia, but it did not change her forthcoming title. She become the second Slamless player of the season to claim the coveted top ranking.
Many people have an issue with someone who is yet to win a Grand Slam title assailing the heights of tennis. It is viewed as an embarrassing look for the tour. Surely the best players in the world should have at least one major triumph to their name, proving that they can win seven straight matches in a fortnight, whilst handling the mental pressure of such an occasion and the magnitude of the stage? For what it’s worth, I agree that they should.
But here lies the crucial issue. Whilst the world no. 1 is constantly referred to by experts and adverts as “the best player in the world”, that is not always the case. For “world no. 1” and “the best” are actually two separate things.
For me, 2017 WTA Finals finalist Venus Williams is among the very best players on tour right now. She might even top the lot. The 37-year-old – enduring a chronic autoimmune disease, and often battling the doubt of onlookers – might just be as versatile as she has ever been in her illustrious career. The American can dominate with her slick power and precise serve, and she can use slice and craft smartly and maturely to come out on top from the back foot. To emerge from the round robin stage of the current event in Singapore, she disposed of Muguruza – a title favourite after a second half of the season that outdid most – in straight sets. And in the semifinals, she shrugged off losing an incredibly tight first set against Caroline Garcia – whose results in Asia have been unmatched this year – to set up a meeting with Caroline Wozniacki. The scoreline was 6-7(3) 6-2 6-3.
The American has been far from perfect, but her performances continue to earn her public acclaim from her peers as though she were winning multiple Slams – despite her current world ranking of no. 5.
Of course, her achievements over the past 20 years or so have much to do with this. But the core reason that Venus is ranked so low is that she has played like one of the best in the world, without competing as much as the best in the world. She has peaked at the Grand Slams, reaching the second week at all four major events and the final at two of them. But excluding the Slams, she has played just 11 tournaments this year. In contrast, Wozniacki – her opponent on Sunday – has played 22 in total.
Can “the best” tennis player ever be truly defined? Perhaps not. There is a large element of subjectivity to it. While results and absences can be used as a basis for one’s opinion, it still remains nothing more than an opinion – however well-informed. It depends upon the perspective and mindset of a particular person. Do they see more value in a single Grand Slam title, or three Premier trophies? Do they rate the quality of opponents that a player has faced? Even if they do, their opinion there may differ to the next person in line.
But while “the best” is more vague a concept that “world no. 1”, what remains a fact is that these two titles are not one and the same. “The best” is decided by people. “World no. 1” is decided by computers. One involves eyes that can assess a physical game and strategies and opposition. One involved a machine that can see nothing more than straightforward wins and losses. It cannot even assess the story behind those numbers.
If the sport is to be commented upon fairly, then these two headings need to be distinguished from each other, and kept that way.
Halep’s Singapore campaign started promisingly, and ended miserably. She finishes the season with one win to two losses as world no. 1 (or three losses, if you wish to count her fall to Garcia when she had confirmed her ranking for the following day.)
Much as I admire her work ethic and skill, my instinct is to say that she does not really deserve her top ranking at present. Nevertheless, that opinion is based on the socially constructed idea that “world no. 1” equates with “best player in the world”. And it does not.
Halep is at the helm of the rankings, and she may even be there by default. But does she deserve to be there?
Computer says yes. Whether we like it or not.
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