Criticism is being directed at the WTA for its interim changes to the rankings system, arising because of the 2020 WTA Tour being derailed by COVID-19, which is said to be artificially keeping Ash Barty as World No 1 when Naomi Osaka has won the last 2 Grand Slam titles.
I can’t control what anyone else does. For the tournaments or with the rankings, that’s out of my control. As for defending points, I think that’s a very negative way to look at it. Ash Barty
The WTA announced the changes to the system to prevent coronavirus unfairly affecting a player’s standing, and adopted a ‘frozen rankings’ system instead of the usual rolling 52 week calculator, which enabled a player’s best 16 results in tournaments since March 2019 to determine where they sit on the list.
The debate, no doubt, will rumble on, but in essence, Barty’s claim to the top spot comes as a result of her red-hot second half of the 2019 season, which has remained protected.
The 24-year-old chose not to travel outside of Australia in the middle of the global pandemic and only returned to the court during the lead-up events to this year’s Australian Open after an absence of 11 months.
The rankings are now being labelled ‘deeply out of sync’ with the reality that Barty’s position does not reflect her true place in the pecking order.
Since the 2018 US Open final, Osaka has won 4 of the 9 Grand Slams held, and although Barty won the French Open in 2019, she has only reached the semi-finals of a Grand Slam twice in her career.
While Barty chose not to defend her title in Paris, her ranking remained protected, but a disappointing quarter-final loss to Karolina Muchova in Melbourne has underlined the frailties of the temporary system.
Despite Muchova being criticised for appearing to take a questionable medical time out before the match was flipped on its head, the fact is that Barty missed a golden opportunity to win her home Grand Slam, and now faces an uphill battle to retain her ranking by the time Wimbledon rolls around.
Barty shrugs off both disappointment and expectations, continuing ‘to go about her business’ as best as she can.
With Osaka now the newly crowned AO champion, many see the Japanese as the best player on the Tour at the moment.
Osaka also won the US Open in September 2020 and her Melbourne Park success saw her move up to No 2 this week, with Barty staying top largely thanks to the two-year rankings system adopted to counter last year’s enforced coronavirus-enforced hiatus.
“There’s no extra pressure,” Barty has said. “The extra pressure is non-existent for me.
“It’s just trying to go about my business and my training, my processes the right way for what works for me and my team.
“And that’s all that matters to us, really, is that we go about it the right way and make the right decisions for the right reasons and then we sleep well at night, regardless of what happens next to our name.
“I can’t control what anyone else does. For the tournaments or with the rankings, that’s out of my control.
“As for defending points, I think that’s a very negative way to look at it.
“Obviously I go back to tournaments knowing that I’ve had successes there. I’ve had good memories.”
Barty said last week that she will travel outside Australia this year, and her confidence has not been dented by her quarter-final defeat.
“We’ve planned and we’ve entered to play a few of the tour events coming up in the Middle East,” she said of her plan now.
“Right from the get-go, obviously it’s the first time we’ve looked to travel for quite some time now.
“We’ll sit back and kind of go through all of the health risks that are at this stage and to where we’re going, then we just work from there.”
Yet defending points is what makes the tour tick, and Barty has several key events over the next 5 months where she now has to defend significant rankings points, while Osaka has much greater scope to pick up points in the same time period.
Barty’s lead at the top with 9,186 points appears certain to come under siege from Osaka, who has 7,835 points, while Simona Halep is also in the race with 7,255 points.
Many believe Barty and Osaka will form a great on-court rivalry on the WTA Tour over the coming few years.
“I’ve only played her a couple times,” Barty said. “We haven’t played a lot.
“Obviously it’s depending on how the draw falls in a lot of tournaments. So hopefully it’s an opportunity for me to play against her in some big moments in big tournaments.
“That’s what we dream of is trying to put yourself in a position to win big titles. So maybe it will happen one day but for the time being that’s not what I’m stressed about.”
For now, Barty focuses on the defence of her title at the Adelaide International, taking it just one step at a time.
“We plan as best as we can,” the 24-year-old told reporters in Adelaide on Monday.
“Obviously in the current situation nothing’s certain. It’s difficult to plan, without a doubt, but we just go with the advice that we have been given.
“Of course I would love to be back on tour full-time, and all those decisions will come as close as we can to the events, but also as far out to try and plan a schedule and plan a tour.”