Yahoo’s tennis blog – Busted Racquet – came out with a list of the top 10 women’s tennis players this decade. The ranking methodology was not released – I can say that it was somehow based on incorrect information (Venus didn’t win just 5 grand slams) and looks to me that it was dictated more by the blogger’s recent memory and subjectivity than taking the accomplishments of the players for the whole decade. True enough, dozens of readers lambasted the list.

So, I decided to make my own list. As a tennis fan, I have my own biases. To be objective, I decided to come out with a 2-step process to determine how I would rank the players. The first step is to use raw data for greatness and be able to categorize the players. After the players have been categorized, I can further rank the players within the category. My goal is to come out with a list of 10 players that would represent the greatest women’s tennis players for the years of 2000 – 2009.

The two measures for greatness I used are: tennis rankings and grand slam performance. These two factors are measurable and objective. Tennis rankings indicate how well a player compares to her peers at any given time, based on a criteria determined by the WTA. (Yes, it’s not perfect, but it is a good gauge of consistency and performance). Grand slam results gauge how well a player performs in the biggest arenas of tennis.

In the first step – the following factors were used: # of Grand Slams wons, the number of Grand Slam finals reached, the ability to reach the #1 ranking, ending the year as #1, and the length of stay in the top spot.

There were 19 ladies who contested the 40 grand slam finals in the decade. To be considered amongst the greatest tennis players, the minimum criterion is to reach at least 1 grand slam final. For ranking purposes, I used 1 point for a Grand Slam Championship and 1/3 point for a runner-up finish. This resulted in some rather interesting results. Kim Clijsters with 2 grand slams and 6 finals appearances earned the same points as Maria Sharapova who had 2 grand slams and 4 finals appearances. Svetlana Kuznetsova had more points with 2 grand slams in 4 finals contested as compared to Lindsay Davenport with 1 grand slam in 5 finals contested. Using this point allocation, the top grand slam performers this decade are:

Rank Player Won Finals GS Points
1 S Williams 10 3 11.00
2 V Williams 7 6 9.00
3 J Henin 7 4 8.33
4 K Clijsters 2 4 3.33
4 M Sharapova 3 1 3.33
5 J Capriati 3 3.00
6 S Kuznetsova 2 2 2.67
7 L Davenport 1 4 2.33
8 A Mauresmo 2 2.00
9 A Ivanovic 1 2 1.67
10 M Pierce 1 2 1.67
11 M Hingis 3 1.00
12 D Safina 3 1.00
12 A Myskina 1 1.00
14 E Dementieva 2 0.67
15 J Jankovic 1 0.33
15 M Bartoli 1 0.33
15 C Wozniacki 1 0.33
15 C Martinez 1 0.33

Next, the data on the weeks a player spent at #1 was analyzed. I counted weeks spent from June 2000 – Dec 2009 only since the rankings before June 2000 were calculated based on a majority of results from 1999. Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis are impacted on this adjustment as they swapped the top spot 4 times before June 2000. For point allocation, I divided the weeks a player spent at number 1 by the number of weeks in a year – 365.25 / 7 to be exact. This means that about 52 weeks spent at number 1 would equate to one point, or 1 Grand Slam. See column in table below called Rnk A.

To add more weight to the ranking, the ability of reaching the #1 spot is given another point. This gave advantage to Safina, Jankovic, and Hingis while penalizing Kuznetsova. See column in table marked as Rnk B.

I further gave an additional 1/3 point for every year a player finished in the top spot. This gave extra points to Jelena Jankovic which I really don’t agree with, plus it allowed Lindsay Davenport to have more points than Serena Williams even with lesser weeks spent at #1. See column in table marked as Rnk C.

Here are the top performers based on the rankings:

Rank Player Weeks @ #1 Rnk A Rnk B Rnk C Total Rnk Points
1 J Henin 117 2.24 1.00 1.00 4.24
2 L Davenport 70 1.34 1.00 1.00 3.34
3 S Williams 84 1.61 1.00 0.67 3.28
4 M Hingis 70 1.34 1.00 0.33 2.67
5 A Mauresmo 39 0.75 1.00 1.75
6 J Jankovic 18 0.34 1.00 0.33 1.68
7 D Safina 26 0.50 1.00 1.50
8 K Clijsters 19 0.36 1.00 1.36
9 M Sharapova 17 0.33 1.00 1.33
9 J Capriati 17 0.33 1.00 1.33
11 A Ivanovic 12 0.23 1.00 1.23
12 V Williams 11 0.21 1.00 1.21

By adding the points together, I was able to see a good picture how players can be categorized.

Player GS Points Rnk Points Total Pts Category
S Williams 11.00 3.28 14.28 A
J Henin 8.33 4.24 12.57 A
V Williams 9.00 1.21 10.21 B
L Davenport 2.33 3.34 5.67 C
K Clijsters 3.33 1.36 4.69 C
M Sharapova 3.33 1.33 4.66 C
J Capriati 3.00 1.33 4.33 C
A Mauresmo 2.00 1.75 3.75 C
M Hingis 1.00 2.67 3.67 D
A Ivanovic 1.67 1.23 2.90 D
S Kuznetsova 2.67 0.00 2.67 D
D Safina 1.00 1.50 2.50 D
J Jankovic 0.33 1.68 2.01 D
M Pierce 1.67 0.00 1.67 D
A Myskina 1.00 0.00 1.00
E Dementieva 0.67 0.00 0.67
M Bartoli 0.33 0.00 0.33
C Wozniacki 0.33 0.00 0.33
C Martinez 0.33 0.00 0.33

I separated the top 2 players, Serena Williams and Justine Henin away from the rest as they were within 2 points of each other, but more than 2 points from the next player. Note that in the point allocation, 1 Grand Slam is 1 point. Venus Williams with 10.21 points had her own category. There were 5 other players in the next category and this included Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova, Jennifer Capriati, and Amelie Mauresmo. The next category was composed of Martina Hingis, Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dinara Safina,  Jelena Jankovic and Mary Pierce.

I made a distinction between Hingis and Mauresmo since Mauresmo won 2 grand slams and Hingis didn’t win anything. To me, that was enough to categorize differently. Hingis is an unusual case because she spent a relatively long time in the number 1 position despite not having won a grand slam for the full 10 years. I am only going for the top 10 greatest of the decade so at this point, I will eliminate Myskina, Dementieva and the rest who had less than or equal to 1 point.

Based on the four categories, I identified common points to validate my initial classification of the players. Now comes the second step and fun part – within a category, I will have to rank the players to come out with my top 10 greatest list.

Category A:
– At least 80 weeks as #1
– At least 7 Grand Slams won on 3 different surfaces
– At least 2 year-end #1 rankings
– Players: Serena Williams, Justine Henin

The two rivals are way ahead of the other great players for the decade. Henin has the edge over Serena in terms of weeks spent at #1. Serena however, won all 4 grand slams and is in very rare company by winning the “Serena Slam” – she was the only one to do this within this period. Add that to the fact that Serena won 3 more grand slams than her rival. Serena’s grand slam performance lead over Henin is far more significant than the latter’s advantage in the rankings. Justine Henin is my #2 greatest player for the decade. Serena Williams is #1.

Category 2:
– Reached #1
– At least 5 Grand Slams won and at least 1 appearance in all 4 different grand slam finals
– At least 3 year-end top 5 ranking and 7 year-end top 10 ranking
– Player: Venus Williams

The older Williams did match Henin in terms of grand slams won but lagged behind the two top players in terms of staying at the top spot. Her 4 majors lead over the next highest achiever puts her in a class of her own. Venus Wiliams takes the #3 spot.

Category 3 :
– Reached #1
– At least 2 Grand Slams won OR 1 Grand Slam won and appearance in at least 3 different grand slam finals
– At least 2 year-end top 5 ranking and 4 year-end top 10 ranking
– Players: L Davenport, K Clijsters, M Sharapova, J Capriati, A Mauresmo

This bunch is so close to each other. There is also a significant gap within the group between best Grand Slam performers – 3 wins against 1 win; and longest stay at #1. To compare this group, I had to be able to compare them on one level. With regards to grand slam performance, Sharapova won 3 / 4 finals. Capriati won 3 / 3. Clijsters won 2 / 6. Mauresmo won 2 / 2. Davenport won just 1 / 4.

To be able to compare, I had to find a way to convert finals reached to majors. I equated 3 finals reached to 1 major. I believe this is a conservative estimate. When it comes to actual ranking points, just 2 finals would be greater than 1 major win. (And that’s why Safina was #1 for most of 2009). If we convert the finals reached to majors using the above conversion –

3 majors won or equivalent: Sharapova, Capriati, Clijsters, Davenport
2 majors won: Mauresmo

With regards to weeks stay at #1, Davenport leads the group with 70 weeks at the top. Mauresmo had 39 weeks. Clijsters had 19. Capriati and Sharapova had 17 weeks each. If we equate 39 weeks of stay at #1 to 1 major, Mauresmo would have 1 more major; Davenport 2 more majors; Sharapova, Clijsters and Capriati have 0.5 majors each.

At this point, here are the standings within the group:

5.0 majors won or equivalent: Davenport
3.5 majors won or equivalent: Capriati, Clijsters, Sharapova
3.0 majors won or equivalent: Mauresmo

I will now include a new factor within the group to help me decide on my rankings. This factor is the number of years with a year-end rank within the top 2; and within the top 5.

Davenport Clijsters Sharapova Capriati Mauresmo
Year end Top2 4 2 1 1 1
Year end Top5 5 5 4 2 4

Much as I’m hesitant to give the top spot for this group to Davenport, especially since she won just 1 actual major, the indicators point to her deserving it. Of the 4 years she ended a year as amongst the top 2 players; she was #1 3 times. I put a very high value to this since amongst the top players, it was matched only by Justine Henin. It was a rare accomplishment. Compare this to winning 3 grand slams that was done by 5 top players. I confidently give my #4 greatest player of the decade nod to Lindsay Davenport.

Who will round out the top 5? The next two players based on the above indicators are Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova. Clijsters has a slight lead in terms of consistency and impact – finishing a year twice as #2 (2003 and 2005); compared to just one for Sharapova (2006). Sharapova however lifted titles at 3 different majors – Australian, Wimbledon and US Open. I put more value to this than Clijster’s 2 majors – both won at the US Open. Maria Sharapova is my #5 greatest, and Kim Clijsters get to be #6.

Mauresmo and Capriati are next. Capriati has an edge in winning 2 Australian Open majors and 1 French Open. Mauresmo won 1 Australian Open and 1 Wimbledon. Mauresmo had more impact though – finishing in the top 5 from 2003 to 2006. Capriati finished in the top 5 on 2 years – 2001 and 2002. Mauresmo also finished in the top 10 for 6 years during the decade as compared to 4 years for Capriati. Amelie Mauresmo gets in my list as #7 greatest. Jennifer Capriati is #8.

Now, I have 2 more slots to fill. The next category has 6 players, but since I needed only 2, I raised the bar a bit.

Category 4:
– Reached #1 or at least 1 Grand Slam won
– At least 3 Grand Slam Finals reached
– At least 2 year end top 5 rankings
– Players: M Hingis, A Ivanovic, S Kuznetsova, D Safina

At this point, Jelena Jankovic and Mary Pierce are dropped from being considered in my Top 10 greatest list. Jankovic may have reached the #1 spot but she only has 1 major final to her name. Mary Pierce, despite 1 major and 2 other finals was in the top 5 for only 1 year in the whole decade and never reached the top spot. As we are talking best of the best in the decade, a player must really meet a particular criterion to be included.

From those remaining, Ivanovic reached 3 major finals, won at least one, and held the top spot as well. She’s definitely a deserving candidate to be in the top 10. Hingis was year-end #1 for 2000 but hasn’t won any major title in the past decade. Her 2006 comeback and 2nd retirement doesn’t impact my selection process. Kuznetsova reached 4 finals and won 2. But her biggest accomplishment that puts her above the others in this group is finishing in the top 5 for 4 years (2004, 2006, 2007, and 2009). She didn’t however reach the top spot but finished a year at #2. Safina is the weakest in the group with 3 major finals, a controversial #1 ranking and no grand slam title to her name. She did finish the past 2 years within the top 3 in the world. At least, she was considered. For my #9 greatest player, I pick Svetlana Kuznetsova. My #10 pick is Ana Ivanovic. (If I would ever make a top 10 list for 1990-1999, Hingis is a shoo-in.)

I’m now very tired and sleepy and I didn’t expect this selection process to take so much energy out of me. Before I log off for the night, here’s a recap my top 10 list:

#1. Serena Williams
#2. Justine Henin
#3. Venus Williams
#4. Lindsay Davenport
#5. Maria Sharapova
#6. Kim Clijsters
#7. Amelie Mauresmo
#8. Jennifer Capriati
#9. Svetlana Kuznetsova
#10. Ana Ivanovic

Some comments on my final list:
– Serena, Justine and Venus won 24 of 40 grand slam titles between them.
– Separating Davenport, Sharapova, and Clijsters was the hardest.
– Two members of the top 3 come from one family.
– 2 continents and 3 countries were represented in the top 5.
– Americans outnumber Russians in the top 10; 4 to 2.
– Only 1 player in the top 10 has retired, and it’s not Jennifer Capriati.

Now, I’ll wait for another day before ranking the men. Who will I select behind Federer and Nadal? Where will Marat Safin rank? How about American legends Agassi and Sampras?