By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
In the tennis rankings, there are always little meta-rankings that have to be thought of. The rankings are not merely a list of who has played better for the past 52 weeks. The rankings define the tennis season. Rankings affect seeding and direct entry into tournaments. Players around the top 80 and a bit above know that they are getting close to where they can directly enter 250s without having to play qualifiers. Once you hit the top 40, you can guarantee yourself entry into the Masters tournaments and being seeded in 250s. There are imaginary cutoffs throughout that players are trying to stay above so that they will have the best chance to improve their ranking in the future.
By far the most important ranking number, however, is 32. Being in the top 32 guarantees a player a seed at a Slam. It means that he knows that he can’t be forced to face a top player until at least the third round. It usually (but not always) means facing a weaker opponent in the first round. A seeded player might have a bit more of a target on their backs, but it doesn’t make so much of a difference. Everyone is trying their absolute hardest to win every Grand Slam match anyway.
Even within the top 32, though, there are important additional cutoffs. Different Slams break up the seeding a little differently, but the basic premise is the same. No player in the top 32 can play each other until the third round. The top 16 cannot meet until the fourth round. None of the top 8 seeds can meet until the quarterfinals. The top 4 are each in different quarters of the draw and the top 2 each get their own half.
Aside from being prestigious tournaments in their own rights, this is one of the main things that the Masters tournaments do for the tour. They give a massive opportunity for players to jockey for positioning and affect their rankings before the Slams. I know that there are 2 months and 2 more Masters 1000 events between now and Roland Garros, but Miami is a massive opportunity for a lot of players to drastically improve their seeding by the time the end of May rolls around.
Both Federer and Nadal have withdrawn from this tournament. This means that there is a lot of space in the draw that might have otherwise been very difficult for a lower player, or even another top 10 player, to be able to navigate. Murray and Djokovic are still the obvious favorites, but there are places for players to pick up points. For example, Ferrer’s quarter of the draw seems pretty wide open and a player like Kei Nishikori (just to name one) can really gain a lot of points. There is a large gap between the top 8 and the field right now, so no one is likely to break into that group in the immediate future, but picking up 180 or even 360 points here would be a great way to put a player in a strong position to make even more headway up the rankings in the future.
With the way Berdych played last week, it’s hard to imagine him not reaching the semifinals. But there are a lot of very good players in his quarter and just about any of them can use this opportunity to earn a lot of points. I can really see just about any seed from that quarter winning it, which would bring with it 360 points. And while 360 points might not be such a large number when we look at the top 10, it would definitely put any top 20 player into a strong spot to be in the top 16 two months from now.
Of course, the most important outcome of Nadal’s absence from this tournament is that David Ferrer will move back into the top 4 in two weeks. We saw Federer and Nadal meet in a quarterfinal at Indian Wells because Nadal was outside the top 4. If Ferrer can keep that #4 spot until Roland Garros, it could mean that Rafa will have to play another member of the “Big 4” in the quarters instead of the semis. Rafa has almost 3000 points to defend between now and the French Open (including Miami) while Ferrer has barely over 1000. And while Nadal will be the favorite in the clay court Masters tournaments, we have to wonder how much he needs to protect his knee and whether that will keep him from being a top 4 seed when it’s time to go to Paris.
Until now, though, we only looked at players making good runs. Even at the top of the game, 1000 points is a lot. If someone could take advantage of Federer’s and Nadal’s absences and actually win this tournament, it would give a massive rankings boost and would really change that player’s entire season. 1000 points would move Murray up to World #2. It would put Berdych or Del Potro within reach of the top 4. It would allow a lot of top 20 players to begin bridging that massive gap to the top 8. It would basically guarantee a player at least a top 16 ranking for the next 4 Slams. The draw is not that wide open, so don’t expect a surprise winner. But we definitely can expect some good runs from some lower players, and the boost in their ranking will definitely allow them to be more competitive for the entire rest of the season.