Breaking down how college tennis rankings are determined

Codie Yan | Staff Photographer

Like every other Division I tennis program, Syracuse is beholden to the mathematical formula. It determines ranks across all modes of play: singles, doubles and team.

One of college tennis’ best-ranked doubles teams hasn’t played together this season.

The pairing of Valeria Salazar and Gabriela Knutson opened the year ranked No. 10 in the country. Even though Salazar’s right-wrist injury ended her season after one game, in early February, the duo is still ranked, now at No. 26.

They remain ranked due to an oddity in college tennis rankings. The only way to drop out of the rankings is to lose and the only way others can pass the Salazar-Knutson team is by winning.

Like every other Division I tennis program, Syracuse (7-10, 4-6 Atlantic Coast) is beholden to the mathematical formula. It determines ranks across all modes of play: singles, doubles and team. The system used in college tennis is also unique. The three other major governing bodies in the sport use a different method.

“I wouldn’t want my coaches to decide how it is,” Knutson said. “So, I really like that it is computerized, because I think it’s fair. If you beat a ranked opponent, you should move higher.”

Unlike football, hockey or basketball, there is no poll — coaches or press — to determine which team gets which number by its name. Just like the former Bowl Championship Series math in college football, the computer rankings determine the fields for the singles, doubles and team NCAA tournaments at the end of the season. The rankings ensure the ranking’s importance.

It’s a constant crunching of one mathematical formula.

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The equation takes the sum of points from wins, which are assigned relative to an opponent’s ranking. Wins over No. 1 through No. 5 are worth 80 points, six through 10 are worth 75, and the scale decreases until Nos. 101 to 125, which are worth 10. A similar system applies to loss points, but in reverse. Losing to the No. 1 player adds one-tenth of a point to the loss points and losing to an unranked player hits at 1.25 loss points. Every player’s wins and losses are reported to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, which plugs in the results and calculates each player’s average point value. They are then ranked accordingly.

Freshman Miranda Ramirez is the only active SU player ranked, at No. 79 in singles. Salazar, despite having played only one match, ranks No. 109.

“I actually don’t know how college rankings work,” Ramirez said. “I never really followed college tennis before I came here, so I’m still in the process of learning.”

The system compiles the top 125 players in the country and, currently, No. 125 has an average of 4.59 points while No. 1 owns a 74.55 average. The gap appears enormous, but if No. 125 were to beat No. 1, she would receive 80 win points for beating a top-5 opponent and shoot up the rankings. How far depends at when in the season the upset occurred.

By relying on a formula and points, ITA rankings remain relatively steady as the season progresses. The rankings are volatile early in the season because the denominators for each player are just a handful of points. A big upset could jump a player over 50 spots. The ITA combats these mathematical overreactions by not releasing a second set of rankings until the season’s fourth week.

But as April and May arrive, mobility decreases as totals increase. The stability in the rankings is part of why coaches and players, including Syracuse head coach Younes Limam and the Orange, buy into the calculus for selecting the NCAA tournament field.

“We always say, ‘results don’t lie,’” Limam said.

So, while it’s impossible to be at the top without winning, it’s impossible to drop without losing.

The other four major bodies in tennis — the International Tennis Federation, Association of Tennis Professionals, Women’s Tennis Association and United States Tennis Association — don’t use any type of calculation. They all use a raw points system, in which a tournament champion gets the most points, the runner-up gets just under that and semi-finalists get slightly fewer. Everything results in a net positive and winning a championship earns exponentially more points than being ousted in the early rounds.

Knutson, who began the season No. 99 in singles, beat Miami’s Sinead Lohan, the No. 14 player in the country, on Sunday and didn’t even know it until after the match. When she found out, a grin flashed across her face.

“Well now that I know, that’s awesome,” Knutson said on Sunday. “That means I’ll jump in the rankings.”


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