"Special" Ranking Indeed: WTA Rules Don't Apply to Steffi Graf

An editorial by Chris Gerby

Captions by Peter van Mierlo
February 1998
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In leading an overhaul of the WTA Players Assocation board of advisors in November, tour veteran Patricia Hy-Boulais claimed to be revolting on behalf of the sport's lesser known rank and file players. It was her contention that stars receive preferential treatment from the WTA. Whether or not one agrees with the steps taken by Hy-Boulais and her supporters, it's at least pretty clear that there is some truth to her claims. For proof, one need look no further than the "special ranking" being assigned to Steffi Graf.
Special Rule
The WTA has an unambiguous policy regarding players who are forced out of action for a significant period of time. The tour's Special Ranking Injury Rule allows a player coming back from surgery to return with a protected ranking 30 spots below where they were listed when they last played. This special ranking is not reflected in the tour's regular chart of computer points -- those rankings are based strictly on tournament results. However, the special injury ranking does apply to seeding and direct entry into draws.
For example, Ginger Helgesen Nielsen -- a talented American with career wins over the likes of Conchita Martinez, Mary Joe Fernandez, and Anke Huber -- injured her right wrist at the 1995 Amelia Island event and required surgery. The injury kept her off the tour for more than a year. By the time Helgesen Nielsen was ready to return to the tour, all of her ranking points had fallen off the computer. However, she was granted a special protected ranking of #80 (she was #50 in the world when she got hurt) which got her direct entry into some main draws. The new ranking wasn't high enough to get her any seeds, but it did afford her a reasonable chance to get back on her feet.
This injury ranking rule has been applied many times. Graf's compatriot Meike Babel recently resumed her career with a protected ranking of #59, having had shoulder surgery when she was 29th on the computer. This "add 30 places" provision was even used to accomodate Leila Meskhi in the fall of '96, when she attempted a comeback after giving birth to a baby girl. #33 in the world when she left the tour, Meskhi came back 18 months later with a "special maternity ranking" of #63.
Not Graf
Alas, not everyone is bound by the straightforward rule. The WTA Tour has announced that when Steffi Graf begins playing again, she will do so with a protected ranking of #3, exactly where she was when knee surgery put her out of commission. What happened to the iron-clad rule about adding 30 places? Good question. We can only assume that such rules do not apply to superstars like Graf.
Is Steffi Graf's knee ailment more difficult to return from than the surgeries which shelved Halard-Decugis, Helgeson Nielsen, and the rest? Not necessarily. The special treatment she's being afforded really has nothing to do with the severity of her injury. It has everything to do with the clout carried by the superstars of women's tennis. Steffi Graf is famous and popular, so the WTA allows her to be exempt from the policies which supposedly govern all of the players on the tour.
Perhaps the most troubling part is the tour's willingness to lie about its own policy. An official WTA Tour press release announcing Graf's intention to begin her comeback at the Open Gaz de France tournament in Paris explained her #2 seed as follows: "the Tour rules indicate that a player's Special Ranking is the ranking she earned immediately following the last tournament she played." That statement is misleading at best.
You may be wondering if perhaps the rules were changed for the '98 season. They were not. Julie Halard-Decugis was the #15 player in the world when she was forced off the tour with an injury at the very beginning of the 1997 campaign. She embarked on her comeback at a pair of small Tier IV events in Auckland and Hobart this January. Halard-Decugis was not granted a seed at either tourney, while players ranked far lower than 15th were. Her protected ranking is #45, not #15. 30 places were added, as they are for every injured player except Graf.
Appearance Fees
This is hardly the first time the Women's Tennis Assocation has disregarded its own rules to Graf's advantage. Back in 1996, documented proof came to light which demonstrated that Graf had been paid appearance fees for WTA stops including Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig, Hilton Head, Zurich, Tokyo, and Montreal. Such guaranteed payments for merely showing up at an event are strictly forbidden by the tour.
The ban is clearly stated. "No player (or agent, coach, family member) shall accept money or anything of value that is given from any source, directly or indirectly, to influence or guarantee her appearance in any Corel WTA Tour approved tournament." The code of conduct holds that any player found to have received such appearance fees will receive an automatic fine and suspension. However, Graf received no punishment of any kind. In order to keep one of its most famous players active and content, the WTA Tour looked the other way.
Not the First Time
It is perhaps worth pointing out that the injury ranking rule has been sidestepped once in the past, when Monica Seles made her comeback in 1995. Returning after an absence of more than two years following her brutal on-court stabbing at the hands of Guenter Parche, Seles was granted a temporary co-#1 ranking. However, the use of extraordinary measures there fit the extraordinary situation. Being attacked by a fan whose admitted goal is to remove you from the #1 ranking is far different from needing surgery on a bum knee.
The Seles dilemma was truly unique and merited special considerations. The circumstances of Graf's injury are not unique. Meredith McGrath hurt her knee in the summer of '96 and eventually had arthroscopic surgery. The road back has been slow and difficult, a series of fits and starts not at all unlike Graf's recent string of aborted comeback plans. The only difference is that Meredith's ranking has dropped 30 places while Steffi's has not dropped at all.
Reassuring and Reevaluating
As of 2/2/98, Steffi Graf was the #49 player in the world according to the WTA computer. Her protected ranking, if she were held to the same rules applied to mere mortals like Meike Babel and Janette Husarova, would be #33. However, Graf has been assured that she will receive a high seed in the first few tournaments of her comeback. This special policy will be "reevaluated" following the Lipton Championships.
But How About This?
I suppose one argument in favor of this discrepancy would be that it is in the sport's best interests to guarantee that Graf not face a seeded player early in any tour event. The logic to that claim is dubious. Most tickets for tournament semifinals and finals are sold well in advance, so roughly the same number of fans will attend those weekend sessions whether Graf loses early or cruises into the later rounds.
In fact, the tournaments would probably be better off if Graf were to face a top player before the semis. The recent Australian Open -- its first week highlighted by marquee matchups like the Williams sisters' bout and Hingis vs. Kournikova -- proved just how much extra excitement can be generated when name players square off in the frequently drab early rounds. At the many tournaments where ticket sales are not brisk for the first few rounds, Graf meeting a star like Hingis or Seles before the semifinals would give the box office a major shot in the arm.
Different Song for Martin
The preferential treatment doesn't seem to have raised many eyebrows. It might be assumed that Graf is still one of the three best players in the world, even after an 8-month layoff, and deserves to be seeded accordingly no matter what the rules say. However, that can't be much comfort to the less heralded players who don't get that cushy opportunity to pick up their careers right where they left off. Not even an Australian Open finalist and perennial Top 10 contender like Todd Martin, who was forced to enter qualifying draws and play dingy challenger events to improve his ranking on the men's tour following surgery.
Steffi Graf certainly won't be playing qualies and challengers. She won't even have to face the minor adversity of entering a tournament unseeded. To entice her back into the active fold, the WTA Tour has opened up a warm, cozy spot near the top of the rankings for its beloved German star. Is it fair? Ask Nicole Arendt and Kimberly Po if and when they embark on their comebacks. Better yet, ask Patricia Hy-Boulais.

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Readers' feedback and Chris's Responses

1998:02:12 sukn
Favourite male player female player male ever female ever
Björkman Graf None Graf
You're a moron. Instead of attacking Graf, you should attack the ranking/seeding system. The WTA should amend its injury rule for players ranked inside the top 30 when they were injured. If the player is inside the top 30 when injured, they should retain that special ranking for entry into the tournaments. Why? Becasue the whole purpose of seeding is to avoid top players from meeting in the early rounds. DUH! Just becasue Graf or another top player is returning from an injury doesn't mean they are not the same great player upon their return. Remember Seles' return.
And while early match-ups of top players would be exciting, and would sell more tickets at the gate, let's not forget the biggest crowds are on TV, and TV generally only telecasts the semis and the finals.
For one thing, I don't believe the editorial attacks Graf. It takes no personal shots at her. Certainly nothing on the order of calling her a moron, for instance. As for the merits of the ranking/seeding system itself, that's not really what I was addressing. I'm simply pointing out that the tour is treating Graf differently than anyone else.

On the issue of Graf deserving a high ranking because top players shouldn't have to face each other early in tournaments, do we know for sure that Steffi -- after such a long absence -- is one of the three best players in the world? One of the problems with letting players come back with the exact same rankings they had before major surgery is the question of whether they in fact are able to play at that same level. Graf's rather decisive loss to Sabine Appelmans in the first tournament of her comeback at least raises doubts about her status as a Top 3 player.

1998:02:12 Ken
Favourite male player female player male ever female ever
Becker Sanchez-Vicario McEnroe Navratilova
Chris Gerby's editorial is ludicrous, unfair, slanderous and irresponsible.

Steffi Graf is not the first player to use the injury rule and is not the first player to receive the ranking she had (for tournament entry purposes) at the time of injury. In the past the 30 spots lower rule was the was the case, but the rule has apparently changed. For example, I have read in numerous places that Julie Halard Decugis is using the #15 ranking for entry purposes. In terms of seeding, no tournament is obligated to follow the rankings for seeding. It is encouraged by the WTA, but not required. If the tournaments chooses to seed Steffi, the reasons are obvious and understandable and it is within their jurisdiction. Further, to say that "documented proof came to light" that Steffi Graf received appearance fees for previous events is a lie. ONE person made the allegation during her tax trial and never presented any substantive proof. The WTA requested proof in order to pursue an investigation, but no proof was ever presented. It would have been outrageous to investigate her based on one statement that couldn't be backed up.

It is also unfair to bring Todd Martin into the argument. He does not compete on the WTA Tour. He is an ATP player and thus must play under their rules.

Insinuating that Patricia Hy Boulais and her mob were justified in what they did shows that the writer (Chris Gerby) has no understanding of the situation, has a weak business mind and probably just got his nose out of joint because the WTA is not good at making certain rules clear nor are they good at answering queries. In fact, they are lousy at it. Nevertheless, Gerby owes Graf and the WTA and apology and should think twice in the future before releasing such a careless diatribe.
The injury ranking protection rule has not changed. The WTA itself even acknowledges that a SPECIAL RULING was made in Graf's particular case.

As for there being no proof to back up the appearance fee allegations, a segment on HBO's "Real Sports" program showed the actual documents which outline the appearance fees Graf was paid at various tournaments. The chief prosecutor in the Peter Graf tax evasion trial confirmed the information, as did an investigative reporter for Der Spiegel. The head of the German Tennis Federation said that he was forced by Peter Graf to pay appearance money. Current Tennis Week editor-in-chief Eugene L. Scott said he also was pressured to pay the Grafs an appearance fee during his stint as a tournament director in the 1980s. Like it or not, more than one person believes such payments were made.

Lastly, the editorial is not an endorsement of the actions taken by Patricia Hy-Boulais and her "mob." I'm merely suggesting that there's some merit to the belief that star players tend to receive special treatment. There is absolutely no disputing the fact that the WTA Tour is handling Graf's comeback differently than the comeback of other injured players. If you want to argue that Graf DESERVES special treatment, that's fine with me...but it confirms the very premise of my editorial.

1998:02:12 Connie
Favourite male player female player male ever female ever
Last time I checked, the WTA dropped an investigation into illegal appearance fees recieved by Steffi Graf, deciding that there wasn't ENOUGH proof to go deeper. Does Chris Gerby know something that the WTA doesn't? He must, otherwise why else would he imply that the WTA "looked the other way" as to "keep one of its most famous players active and content"? So ... where is this documented proof? If Mr. Gerby is going to make allegations like this, I am sure all readers would like to see what he has to back him up. Like her or not, Steffi Graf IS one of the greatest players in history. She doesn't deserve something like this.
Consult my reply to a previous letter for where I got the appearance fee information. I don't know for sure that Steffi Graf received appearance fees, but there were numerous documents and anecdotal evidence to back up the charges. These seemingly would be things the WTA should have been interested in looking into, but the HBO piece made it clear that the tour was dragging its feet, at least initially.

1998:02:13 Wanto Wijaya
Favourite male player female player male ever female ever
Courier Graf Lendl Graf
Dear Sir,

I am writing in response of your article about the special ranking that Steffi Graf will receive when she comes back. Granted that I am a Steffi Graf fan and my opinion is biased. However, from the tone of your article,you seem to be attacking Graf more than WTA. Steffi Graf is one of the greatest players of all time, arguably even the best of all times and for you to dissed her like that, that is almost an insult.
There has never been any proof presented to WTA about appearance money allegation, so how can Steffi Graf, be punished if there is no proof?
(Furthermore, it is a well known fact that a lot of top players are accepting appearance money on the tour. To single Graf out would be unfair).
Lastly, Graf would never have to play qualies or satellites because she is a grand slam champion. The WTA rules state that a grand slam champion will have an unlimited wild cards to any tournaments that she wants to play. This rules has been established long time ago.

Thank you.

Wanto Wijaya
Yes, I'm sure Graf could gain direct entry into any tournament she sees fit to participate in for the rest of her career. However, will she always deserve a high seed simply based on her past accomplishments?

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