Demystifying protected rankings

We know about seeds, qualifiers, lucky losers and wild cards, but what are SR's and PE's?

Serena Williams (L) and Victoria Azarenka are both unseeded and playing at Roland-Garros for the first time in two years.
 - Sarah Edworthy

Serena Williams is officially ranked No.453 in the world and yet she was awarded a place in the main draw without having to swashbuckle her way through qualifying, though not a seeding. And James Duckworth, the 26-year-old Australian, holds an ATP ranking of 1,070, and yet features on the draw with a first-round encounter with Marin Cilic.


Welcome to the world of special rankings and protected entries. Cue Dickensian fog and a flurry of footnotes, and sub-clauses. But like the aviator Roland Garros, after whom the French Open is named, we like to flirt with clouds and find a clear path forwards: it’s time to demystify the business of the SR's and PE's.

A Grand Slam singles main draw is made up of six categories of entrants: seeds, qualifiers, wild cards, lucky losers, and the players who earn direct entry to reach the field of 128, but also long-term absentees who wear the invisible cloak of their former status. What are special rankings and protected entries? What advantage do they give players awarded them? Who has used them at Roland-Garros? And how do they work? 

Victoria Azarenka entraînement / practice Roland-Garros 2018©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

What are they?

A WTA Special Ranking allows players who are sidelined with a long-term injury or pregnancy to return to competition using their ranking at the time of the start of their absence. The key point is that it enables them to enter the main draw of an event; it doesn’t put them back into contention for seeding.

The ATP call the same status a “protected entry”. The ranking awarded is determined by the player’s average ranking position during the first three months after his last event played. The player must be ranked during each week of this three-month period. Again, it can’t be used for seeding or lucky loser consideration.

Which players have used their Special Ranking/protected entry to compete here?

In the women’s draw: Serena Williams (No.1), Victoria Azarenka (No.6), Zheng Saisai (No.88), Bethanie Mattek-Sands (No.90), Kristina Kucova (No.95), Vania King (No.103) and Mandy Minella (No.104). Williams, Azarenka and Minella are returning after pregnancy; the others are back on court after long-term injury layoffs.

In the men’s draw: Andreas Haider-Maurer (No.63), Yoshihito Nishioka (No.66), James Duckworth (No.105) and Pablo Andujar (No.105).

Roland-Garros 2018, Serena Williams, Patrick Mouratoglou©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Who is eligible?

For a WTA Special Ranking in either singles or doubles, a player must have been out of competition a minimum of six months and a maximum of two years. At the time she stopped playing, a player must have been ranked in the Top 300 in singles or Top 200 in doubles.

The ATP rules are more labyrinthine, with a two-tier calculation depending on whether a player has been injured and out of action for a period between six and 12 months, or for 12 months and longer.

How do players apply?

A player can use their WTA Special Ranking to gain entry into eight tournaments within one year of their return date at a maximum of two WTA Premier Mandatory tournaments (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Beijing) and two Grand Slams. The Special Ranking application and supporting medical documentation must be submitted within six months after last professional tournament played.

On the ATP side, a player has to petition the President for an entry protection when “he is physically injured or has a documented medical illness and does not compete in any tennis event, including Special Events – Exhibitions, for a minimum period of six months. The written petition must be received within six months after his last tournament and must provide medical documentation including a letter from a treating licensed physician confirming the injury or illness.” Each petition is then evaluated by the ATP Medical Services Committee.

What are the provisos?

Serena, Vika and Mandy Minella had to return within 12 months of birth to take advantage of a Special Ranking.

As for the men, pay attention now folks – the ATP limits the use of protected entry as follows:

a) If a player is physically injured and does not compete in any tennis event for a period of at least six months but less than 12 months, the entry protection shall be in effect for the first nine singles and the first nine doubles tournaments that the player competes in using the entry protection or for the period up to nine months beginning with the first tennis event that the player competes in, whichever occurs first.

b) If a player does not compete for a period of 12 months or longer, the entry protection shall be in effect for the first 12 singles tournaments and the first 12 doubles tournaments that the player competes in using the entry protection or for the period up to 12 months beginning with the first tennis event that the player competes in, whichever occurs first.

c) A player has three years from his original last event played to activate his protected ranking and will not be eligible to use his entry protected ranking beyond this date.

Can a player enter both singles and doubles?

No. The use of a protected ranking to enter the singles and/or doubles of a Grand Slam event is limited to once per Grand Slam event. Serena was awarded a wild card in order to compete in the doubles with sister Venus.