What Is Protected Ranking In Tennis? (Tennis Coach Explains)

Tennis is a wonderful sport, but unfortunately, it has many complicated rules. One of these rules is the protected ranking rule. Therefore, in this article, I will explain what exactly protected ranking is in tennis.

Protected ranking is a rule that allows a player to ask for its ranking to be protected in case of injury or illness. To do so, the player must have been injured or ill for at least six months. The average ranking during the first three months of the injury will be maintained.

There is much more to be said about protected ranking and how ranking works in tennis. I will go into much more detail about that in this article.

What Is Protected Ranking In Tennis?

Before we get into what a protected ranking is, we need to understand how ATP (Men’s Association of Tennis Professionals) and WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) ranking and point systems work. 

Tennis rankings are based on a point system. A player earns points throughout the year.

The amount of points they earn depends on how far they make it in any given tennis tournament.

The more prestigious a tournament, the more points are awarded each round in the tournament.

Here is a table of the breakdown of the points given per round to a player in a Grand Slam event:

ATP Grand Slam points by round:WTA Grand Slam points by round:
Winner: 2000 pointsWinner: 2000 points
Runner Up: 1200 pointsRunner Up: 1300 points
Semi-Finalist: 720 pointsSemi-Finalist: 780 points
Quarter-Finalist: 360 pointsQuarter-Finalist: 430 points
Round-of-16 (4th Round): 180 pointsRound-of-16 (4th Round): 240 points
Round-of-32 (3rd Round): 90 pointsRound-of-32 (3rd Round): 130 points
Round-of-64 (2nd Round): 45 pointsRound-of-64 (2nd Round): 70 points
Round-of-128 (1st Round): 10 pointsRound-of-128 (1st Round): 10 points

While there are differences in the amount of points given based on the level of the tournament, each tournament is consistent in giving higher points the deeper a player goes into a tournament.

There are also some nuances between the men’s tour and women’s tour:

  • Male players’ points are averaged around the best nineteen tournament results they have throughout a calendar year.
  • Female players’ points are averaged around the best sixteen tournament results they have throughout a calendar year.

Basically, the more points you earn throughout the year, the higher your ranking.

Now, what is a protected ranking?

The official definition of protected ranking is that players injured for a minimum of six months can ask for a protected ranking based on their average ranking during the first three months of their injury.

The player can use their protected ranking to enter tournaments’ main draws or qualifying events when coming back from injury. It is also used in the WTA for players returning from pregnancy leave.

Protected rankings are sometimes called Special Ranking (WTA) or Protected Entry (ATP). This tennis rule is quite unique in the sports world.

How Does Protected Ranking Work in Tennis?

According to the ATP tour website, a player has to write a petition to the ATP President to gain Protected Entry when they are injured and have not competed in a tournament for a minimum of six months.

The petition must be received within six months from their last tournament.

The protected ranking is determined by the player’s average ranking position during the first three months of his injury.

Based on this prior average, a player’s protected ranking can only be used in the first nine tournaments they play once they have recovered from injury or illness or within nine months of returning to competition. 

A great example is Andy Murray, who used his protected ranking to come back to competition after his hip surgery.

For the WTA, the Special Ranking rule was introduced in 2019 and is just the name the women’s tour uses for protected ranking.

It follows the same premise as the ATP rules:

  • A player who has been out of competition for more than six months but less than one year can use their special ranking to enter tournaments. However, this ranking can only be used up to their first eight tournaments within a year.
  • If a player is out for twelve months, then the special ranking can be used in their first twelve tournaments back on tour with a year’s time.
  • Three years are allotted for players out due to pregnancy or medical conditions. For those using their special ranking for pregnancy, the time allotted is calculated from the child’s birthday.

Some examples of female players that used their protected ranking are:

Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka used the WTA’s special ranking when they were expecting the birth of their children.

It isn’t clear if Carla Suarez Navarro, diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma, ever applied for a special ranking during her treatment and recovery.

Still, it most likely would have been awarded one if she had.

What Does Ranking Mean in Tennis?

Both the WTA and the ATP calculate a player’s rankings by the points they earned over the tennis season.

For the women, the best sixteen tournaments they play determine their ranking.

For the men, the best nineteen tournaments they play determine their ranking.

As of January 5, 2021, here is the current Top 5 ATP and WTA players with the corresponding points they earned in 2021:

ATP Top 5:WTA Top 5:
1. Novak Djokovic (11,540 points)1. Ashleigh Barty (7,582 points)
2. Daniil Medvedev (8,640 points)2. Aryna Sabalenka (6,380 points)
3. Alexander Zverev (7,840 points)3. Garbine Muguruza (5,685 points)
4. Stefanos Tsitsipas (6,540 points)4. Karolina Pliskova (5,135 points)
5. Audrey Rublev (5,150 points)5. Barbora Krejcikova (5,008 points)

A player’s ranking also determines their qualifications for entry into a tournament.

To gain access to the main draw of the four Grand Slams, players must rank in the top 104 players who sign up.

If a player is not accepted into the main draw based on their ranking, there are two other ways to gain entry into a Grand Slam.

  • They must win three rounds of qualifying to enter into the main draw.
  • Receive a wildcard.

There are 128 players in each of the main draws, which is the same amount for both the men’s and women’s singles draw.

  • 104 players gain access based on their ranking.
  • 16 gain entry by getting through those three qualifying rounds.
  • 8 players are given wildcards and do not have to play any qualifying rounds to be in the main draw. 

So, what are wildcards?

Each tournament decides what players receive wildcards. Typically, wildcards will go to local players, young players who have shown potential in juniors, or players coming back from injury.

Most recently, Andy Murray received a wildcard for the 2022 Australian Open.

How Do Tennis Players Get Ranked?

Tennis players earn points in every tournament they play throughout a calendar year. Then those points are calculated into their ranking.

In the top 5 table above, you can see that the No. 1 player on both the men’s tour and women’s tour is also the player with the most points.

These rankings help players get seeded in tournaments like Grand Slams and other professional tennis tournaments.

Each week the rankings are updated, with most movement happening after major tournaments like the Grand Slams.

During a tennis match, you’ll often hear tennis commentators mention that a player has to defend their points from last year.

And they are correct, so let me break that down for you and give you a real-world example:

Novak Djokovic won the 2021 Australian Open, earning himself 2000 points. So going into the 2022 Australian Open, he essentially has to defend those points or risk dropping in the rankings.

Suppose he goes out in an earlier round, which is unlikely because he rules the courts Down Under.

In that case, he essentially loses those points won last year, allowing someone else to claim those 2000 points. 

Some call the tennis ranking system the most accurate meritocracy in sports because it tells you who the best player is, based on his tournament results.


The bottom line is that the further a player gets in a tournament, the higher his ranking.

Suppose one of the top-ranked players sustained an injury that would sideline them for months.

In that case, they can apply for a protected ranking or special ranking through the president of either the WTA or ATP tour.

This allows them to enter tournaments after their injury based on the average ranking they had in the first three months of their injury.

Brian Henderson

I am what you might call a true tennis fanatic. When I am not on the tennis court teaching or playing myself, I am probably writing an informative article about tennis. My goal is to get as many people as possible excited and informed about tennis.
January 6, 2022
Published: January 6, 2022