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[last update was
12-jul-05

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  SQUASHTALK
  OPINION


Pro
Squash Rankings:


Time to Fix the Algorithms …

The
Pro Rankings Belie Current Form
©
2005 SquashTalk.com

by Ron Beck

(Ron
Beck is the editor of SquashTalk and spent five years on the WPSA pro tour)

Since founding SquashTalk
in 1999, I have been following the pro rankings closely, from month to
month. Both the men’s pro (PSA) and women’s pro (WISPA) rankings, which
are essentially the world rankings, since WSF does not issue rankings,
use a similar rankings methodology. The ranking systems are as a whole
pretty good, but have several serious flaws, which come to the fore more
frequently than one might expect.

‘It’s time for the
squash community to put pressure on the PSA and WISPA to bring their ranking
systems up-to-date!   [Read also: WISPA
Rankings – A Perspective
, just provided by WISPA to SquashTalk
]

THE
STRANGE CASE OF LEILANI JOYCE AND SARAH FITZ-GERALD

Probably the most egregious problem I have observed with the world rankings
happened during 2000 and 2001. Leilani Joyce, won the British Open in
1999 but then played an extremely sparse tournament schedule, especially
in 2001 (she played 9 events outside of New Zealand in 2000 and only six
total events in 2001). During that time, she lost to Cassie Jackman (the
player she succeeded at #1) both times she played her in 2000 and 01 and
lost to Sarah Fitz-Gerald (the player who succeeded her at #1) four of
the five times they played in 2001.

Leilani Joyce achieved
world #1 on November 1, 2000 and stayed #1 through September 30 2001.
During that time she played a total of only FOUR EVENTS! Of those four,
she only won one of those events, the 2001 Hong Kong Open, an excellent
tournament for her in which she defeated both Fitz-Gerald and Owens. But
in the other three she lost to Carol Owens once and Sarah Fitz-Gerald
twice.

During that same 11
month time period, Sarah Fitz-Gerald played in 10 events, WINNING EIGHT
of them!

A cynical view would
say that Joyce limited her tournament appearances in 2001 to maximize
the time she would remain at #1, knowing that Fitz-Gerald was the consensus
best women’s player during that entire period. Of course, Fitz-Gerald,
gracious at all times, expressed surprise at her own rise to #1 in October
2001, but really, she was clearly the player to beat in every event she
entered in 2000, 01 and 02, winning 26 of the 30 ranking events she played
in during those three years.

PLAY
IT AGAIN IN 2004-05: ATKINSON AND RACHAEL GRINHAM

It’s not as clear cut a case this time around on the WISPA circuit,
but Vanessa Atkinson, the current world #2, has been in fairly dominant
form, ever since losing to Rachael Grinham in the finals of the 2004 British
Open. It’s a clear case where up to her surprise loss in the Dutch Open
last month, she has been very dominant over a five month span, the best
player out there, in effect the #1, but the inertia of the rankings computer
kept her at #2. In this case – there was no ducking competition by Rachael
Grinham, she just was having trouble contending with the on-fire Atkinson.
And Atkinson and Holland deserved to have the #1 spot, at least for a
month or two.

The situation actually
got so counter-intuitive that WISPA itself issued a press release in mid
April, after Vanessa’s win in the Texas Open, indicating that Vanessa
had achieved a mid-month "informal" ascension to #1.

SOLUTION
#1: WEIGHT THE RANKINGS TOWARDS CURRENT RESULTS

The problem and solution here are clear – a player’s results reflect
the past 12 months play, and are equally weighted whether the result happened
12 months ago or last week. So a player who was dominant 10, 11, and 12
months ago gets identical credit to the player who is dominant for the
past three months. The solution is clear – change the ranking
algorithm to give more weight to newer results
. One simple
way to achieve this would be to weight the results by 3 month quarter:
Current quarter worth 4x, last quarter 3x, 2nd quarter 2x, and oldest
quarter 1x.

A DISINCENTIVE
TO PLAY EVENTS

Here’s the second problem that needs to be addressed: The system disincents
the top players from entering smaller events. Jonathon Power and Sarah
Fitz-Gerald are both players who have taken the "high road"
here. In other words, they have entered events on occasion in which their
rankings would surely suffer even if they won events! This played a role
in the 2001 situation with Fitz-Gerald. She had made a decision to play
her way into top championship form by entering every event in sight. As
a result, there were several occasions when she won an event and by winning
the event lowered her ranking points!

This also happened
with Jonathon Power and Peter Nicol at the beginning of 2005, where to
the delight of North American fans they entered a few events with second
tier prize money. As a consequence, by losing before the finals, they
negatively impacted their rankings.

You may ask, why does
this happen? It is due to the current "star" system which places
a weighting factor into the rankings computer based on the prize money
bracket of an event.

Ask the PSA and WISPA
administrators (I have), and their line of reasoning is that the lesser
prize money events should be set up to give the lower ranked players a
chance to play in ranking events and accumulate ranking points, by discouraging
top players from going to those minor events.

But wait. Let’s look
at this from the fans and sponsors point of view. When an event gets organized
in a place like Salt Lake City or Ottawa or Mexico City or Copenhagen,
the organizers and fans are looking to see the best squash possible. They
want to see a Vanessa Atkinson or a Jonathon Power or a James Willstrop.
They NEED to see those players, in order to build up excitement and commitment
within the local community to stage a larger (prize money) event the following
year. If the French have an event in Paris, they would like, in fact need,
to see Thierry Lincou appear.

The old WPSA Tour
(the predecessor North American pro tour in the eighties and early nineties)
had this problem licked. Their ranking system added both a weighting factor
AND a scaling factor. So no matter how minor the event, if the world #1
wanted to come, he (she) was welcome, and if a winner would improve their
ranking points. The weighting factor would simply mean that the IMPACT
on the ranking would be much smaller in a smaller event but the scaling
factor would mean that it would always be a POSITIVE impact.

And of course there
would be a natural correction – there are only so many events that one
can conceivably play. So a Power or Nicol or Lincou would limit their
presence in smaller events, to avoid wearing down physically. But if they
felt the interest or commitment to compete in a particular event, they
would be properly incented to go.

SOLUTION
#2: ADD A SCALING FACTOR

So the simple fix for the disincentive problem is to introduce a scaling
factor. The way this would work would be a simple process of dividing
the ranking total point by a sum of the weighting factors for all the
event’s entered, essentially "normalizing" the ranking results
,
and making sure that even the world #1 player would not be penalized by
winning a small event.

THE NATIONAL
LEAGUES CONUNDRUM

What many squash fans who follow pro squash may not know is that the top
players meet each other on many more occasions than appear in any statistical
summaries, rankings, or historical record.

These meetings happen
in the National Leagues in the UK, Germany, Holland and France. The National
Leagues are lucrative opportunies for squash pros to make a living and
hone their games. For all but the top few world ranked pros, more of their
income is earned in the national leagues than in tournament matches. Pros
who are based in Europe, such as Joe Kneipp, David Palmer, Thierry Lincou,
and countless others, often are engaged in more than one league meeting
per week.

Logic says that pros
playing each other in such competitions (they are not exhibitions – the
league teams are playing for league positions and championships) where
they are earning money and where the results are recorded and count in
league standings, should have their results count for something in their
relative rankings.

Most probably the
weightings and scalings (see above) should ensure the impact of a league
match is less than a significant PSA or WISPA event. But common sense
tells me that if a David Palmer beats a Thierry Lincou five straight times
in a national league match, that should count for something in the bigger
picture.

SOLUTION
#3: INTRODUCE A RANKING ELEMENT FOR MAJOR NATIONAL LEAGUES

I suggest that the PSA or WISPA experiment with the introduction of
league results with a minor weighting factor
. For instance, maybe
give it the value of a first or second round win in a one star event.

This could also address
the rampant problem of well-paid pros who put forth desultory efforts
in a league match because of the training cycle they happen to be in or
the proximity of a tournament appearance they are focused on.

It would also cause
media, such as SquashTalk, to provide more close coverage
of these leagues – more people would know about the leagues, follow them
– and there would be more value for the sponsors.

THE
INJURY FACTOR FOR THE ELITE PLAYERS

The current situation of Stewart Boswell, former top-five player (between
#4 and #6 from Nov. 01 to Sept 03), who has returned to the tour from
back injury and must work his way back up the rankings ladder from zero
(he has gone from 252 to 62 in five months), by qualifying in low level
events, does not make a lot of sense. The same situation was presented
to WISPA with Sarah Fitz-Gerald’s comeback from knee injury in 2000 and
2001 and Cassie Jackman’s subsequent comeback from back surgery. This
is a more difficult problem without a clear, simple answer. Maybe it can
be addressed through a series of specially controlled exemptions, as was
partially employed in Fitz-Gerald”s case.

This injury comeback
rankings "penalty" not only puts the recovering player at a
big disadvantage, it impacts the entire game. It imbalances the draws.
In Fitz-Gerald’s situation, it created several cases where Fitz-Gerald,
clearly the best player in the events, but unseeded, met and defeated
the first or second seeds in the first or second rounds of the events.
This unbalances the events, and diminishes spectator interest.

In Boswell’s case,
because the PSA pool is much deeper, it literally puts him in a position
of having to play steadily in the most minor events before he can even
get into the QUALIFIER for a major event. A Boswell, who two years ago
was a seeded player in most of the major events, now may not even be able
to play in the qualifier in Hong Kong or the US Open this year, despite
having won easily, from a qualifying position (i.e. playing two extra
matches than the seeded players), five straight events this summer. [And
by the way, why was he playing in these five "minor" events,
where his competition decidely outmatched? Because with a ranking of 252,
or in 80s, 90s or 100s, there are a very limited number of events where
he can even get entry into the qualifier.]

FOOD
FOR THOUGHT

The above is all presented as simply food for thought for the squash community
and PSA and WISPA Boards. The basic point is that rankings can be changed
and improved. They are simply math formulas that can be adjusted or modified.
They should NOT be viewed as a black box in the hands of a Horizon or
any other supplier of the ranking calculator.

As squash seeks to
improve its visibility, fan interest and stature, it would do well to
examine closely how rankings are calculated. My suggestions are only one
person’s view and one way to go. But the evident problems with the rankings,
as evidenced by the examples I described, really beg to be addressed.

Fitz-Gerald and
Atkinson have both been at #2 at junctures when logic would place
them at #1.