Examining the Stats Insider's Tennis World Rankings Before Roland Garros
The 2021 Roland Garros tournament begins on Sunday, May 30 in Paris which means we're roughly two weeks from the year’s only clay-court major tournament.
Let’s see what meanings, mysteries and manifestations of misdirection can be gleaned from Stats Insider’s overall and clay-specific rankings for the ATP and WTA Tours.
These rankings were firmly in place before the two Rome finals which saw Rafael Nadal collect his tenth crown, with last year's French Open champ Iga Swiatek prevailing in the women's.
While the ATP Tour is easier to assess, given that we all know Nadal (first) and Djokovic (second) stand a cut above the rest. In fact, Stats Insider’s clay-specific rankings have Rafa first and Novak second. That’s the one essential test any clay-specific ratings system ought to be able to pass. Naturally, Stats Insider makes the grade on the one rankings question which truly counts.
The other rankings questions on clay – after Nadal and Djokovic – are a lot more subjective, but as long as the rankings can be reasonably explained, the benefit of a specific ranking system becomes evident.
Results or rankings can be debated forever, but if the rationale is clear, grown adults can have a mature discussion about the rankings instead of descending into junk-food arguments that offer a lot of heat and very little light.
People will know why players are ranked where they are. They can therefore discuss what should primarily inform any ranking system. Fans and analysts can discuss priorities and points of emphasis.
Let’s look at Stats Insider’s clay rankings after Nadal and Djokovic.
Alexander Zverev is third. Yes, he probably rates as a less likely contender at Roland Garros compared to Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem, but he did win Madrid, and he also reached the Rome quarterfinals. He's made a Roland Garros quarterfinal in the past. Keep in mind as well that Zverev defeated Nadal and Thiem en route to his Madrid title. Some will say that Madrid is an outlier in predicting how players will perform in Paris, but beating Nadal and Thiem is a bottom-line reality in a results-driven business. It’s understandable that Zverev is third.
Stefanos Tsitsipas – winner of the Monte Carlo Masters and a Roland Garros semifinalist last year – is fourth. Many would put him third, but his inability to hold a set-and-break lead over Djokovic in the Rome quarterfinals would naturally cause some tennis experts to slightly downgrade him before Paris.
Dominic Thiem is fifth. I have gotten into a lot of arguments and debates about Thiem and Tsitsipas on Tennis Twitter. I have Tsitsipas higher than the Austrian not because I think Tsitsipas is a better clay player if all things are equal, but precisely because Tsitsipas and Thiem don't inhabit equal situations right now.
Thiem needed to physically and mentally decompress after the Australian Open. He has lived the (necessarily) tunnel-vision life of a tennis player for a long time. He wants to stop and smell the roses, which is noble on a human level but not necessarily productive for an elite athlete. Thiem’s hunger isn’t what it normally is. He hasn’t played many matches leading up to Roland Garros. It’s hard for any rating system to favourably evaluate a player when said player hasn’t played much or done much in a calendar year.
Matteo Berrettini is sixth because he reached the Madrid final and won the Belgrade title this clay season. Norway's Casper Ruud is seventh. He reached the Monte Carlo and Madrid semifinals, so he earned that place in the clay rankings.
Andy Murray (eighth, and he won’t play Roland Garros), Diego Schwartzman, and Roger Federer round out the top 10 due to reputation and past results. All three men have reached Roland Garros semifinals in the past, Murray and Federer French Open finals as well. Yet, none have done anything on clay in 2021 specifically.
One other player of note on the ATP Tour: Lorenzo Sonego. The young Italian beat Dominic Thiem and Andrey Rublev in Rome to reach the semifinals and push Novak Djokovic to three sets in a very tough match. Sonego has a No. 15 clay ranking which is richly earned and deserved.
Now let’s move to the WTA Tour’s clay rankings nearly two weeks before Roland Garros.
Simona Halep is Stats Insider’s top-ranked clay-court player. She hasn’t won Roland Garros since 2018, but Halep has – over a longer period of time – been the WTA’s most consistent clay warrior. She's played the Madrid and Rome clay tournaments, the most important pre-Roland Garros tournaments, more consistently than other top WTA players over the past few years. Recent French Opens have been disappointing, but her week-to-week results have generally been better than the rest of the field. No one else has been able to fully take charge of each clay season to the same degree. It’s hard to argue against Halep in the context of a three- or four-year run. Unfortunately though, Halep is almost certain to miss Roland Garros with a torn calf muscle suffered in Rome.
What Halep has done over a four-year period, Ashleigh Barty has done in 2021: Stuttgart champion, Madrid finalist, Rome quarterfinalist (and she was leading Coco Gauff a set and 2-1 when she had to retire with pain in her right arm). She has to get healthy for Roland Garros. If she can, she'll have as good a chance as anyone of making a deep run in Paris. She has fully learned how to be consistently strong on clay, a sign of her ability to adapt to all surfaces and environments on tour.
Iga Swiatek is third in Stats Insider’s WTA clay-court rankings, and she has earned it.
A 2020 French Open title last October, followed by her first Rome title has enabled the teenager to rapidly rise in the clay-court rankings. It seems only a matter of time before Swiatek becomes the widely-acknowledged No. 1 clay player in the world. If she makes the Roland Garros final this June and both Halep and Barty aren’t there to meet her in the final, she would probably be viewed as the best clay-courter around, with few objections.
Garbine Muguruza, always dangerous and supremely capable of winning majors at her best (she has won multiple majors, including a French Open, and has reached the finals at three of the four major tournaments), checks in at No. 4 in Stats Insider’s clay-court rankings. Do remember that when Naomi Osaka won the 2021 Australian Open, her toughest test came from Muguruza, the 2016 Roland Garros champion. Muguruza is in some ways the opposite of Ash Barty: While Barty is clearly the best 52-weeks-per-year player on the WTA Tour, Muguruza doesn’t come anywhere close to that level of consistency. Yet, her game is so powerful and explosive that it can come alive for two weeks at a major. She is not to be ignored or underestimated in Paris.
Karolina Pliskova is fifth in Stats Insider’s rankings. Most pundits and commentators would certainly not list Pliskova as a leading contender at the French Open. This begs the question: How can she be ranked this high on clay? Is there a good answer for this? Yes. Pliskova has made the Rome final (this is a 1,000-point tournament, one of the biggest events of the clay season) three straight years. It is one of the most improbable occurrences in clay-court women’s tennis in the past three years, but it has happened. You and I might – with our eyes and our ability to observe – diminish Pliskova’s chances, but a rankings system can’t ignore or dismiss Rome results. Rome is why Pliskova is No. 5, and it’s completely reasonable.
Serena Williams is No. 6. She has won Roland Garros three times. She has not done a whole lot on clay in the past three to four years, but three French Open trophies and a few other French Open runs (one final in 2016, one semifinal earlier in her career) are impossible to ignore.
Elina Svitolina is No. 7. She would be higher if she hadn’t blown a 5-1 lead in the second set against Halep in the 2017 Roland Garros quarterfinals, leading by a set and being one game away from victory. That loss remains the toughest of her career, and it serves as a reminder of Svitolina’s unfulfilled potential as a tennis player. It is improbable but true that Svitolina has still not reached a major final. She certainly has the talent to do so.
Petra Kvitova, who reached the Roland Garros semifinals last October and has won multiple titles at the Madrid clay tour stop, is No. 8.
Kiki Bertens, who has come to Paris in past years as a leading title threat but has run into miserable health and injury luck, is No. 9. Veronika Kudermetova is No. 10 because other players on tour haven’t been as consistent. The three players outside the top 10 you should keep an eye on in Paris: No. 11-ranked Aryna Sabalenka, the 2021 Madrid champion; No. 15 Elise Mertens, who beat Halep in Madrid and is a tough out on the tour; and No. 20 Maria Sakkari, who has notched several quality wins this year and constantly seems to be on the cusp of doing something significant in women’s tennis.
Every rankings formula is going to have its own nuances and points of emphasis. Stats Insider’s clay-court rankings, two weeks before Roland Garros, can easily be debated on various levels, but each ranking has a valid basis in fact. Let the conversations continue in the lead-up to the French Open!
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