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40 years on, how have the ATP world rankings developed?

Novak Djokovic can lay claim to being the player of 2012
by Simon Cambers
Friday 15 February 2013

As the ATP World Tour's world rankings system celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, Wimbledon.com investigates how the numbers have developed

From Ilie Nastase to current world No.1 Novak Djokovic (pictured above) and with 23 other champions in between, the list of players who have topped the official ATP world rankings reads like a who’s who in men’s tennis. For most players, getting to the top of their profession is something they can only dream of, but for 25 men who have accomplished it, their place in history is assured.

It’s now 40 years since the computer ranking system was first instigated, a year after the formation of the ATP itself. It was designed to offer a fairer means of seeding players and determining entries into tournaments as well as giving fans the chance to see where their favourites stood in the pecking order.

In the ensuing four decades, the exact make-up of the rankings, and the criteria used to determine them has changed on a number of occasions. At one stage, players used to earn bonus points for beating higher-ranked players, but they were removed in 2000. That was the same year the ATP tried to introduce “The Race”, a calendar-year ranking rather than a rolling 52-week ranking, designed to build towards the season-ending finals and make it easier for fans to see what was going on.

The Race’s obvious flaw was that the “true” rankings would only become clear at the end of the year so it was soon disappeared into the background, with the rolling ranking restored to its former place. Indeed, it is a mark of the rankings’ success that apart from these relatively cosmetic changes, the players have backed the system throughout.

Nastase’s reign as the first No.1 lasted 40 weeks before Australia’s John Newcombe took over and then over the next decade, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe rotated at the top of the rankings. Reaching the top was one thing, but staying there was another, with many players feeling that remaining No 1 was doubly difficult; the rankings reward consistency in all events, you’re there to be shot at and it’s almost impossible to stay at your best for a sustained period without a dip in form.

Mats Wilander, for example, has also commented about how uncomfortable he felt at the top of the rankings. 

That is what makes Connors, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer so extra-special. In all, Connors enjoyed 260 weeks on top, pipped by Ivan Lendl at 270 and then Sampras at 286, before Federer came along to beat the lot with his current total of 302 weeks. It was a position the Swiss felt comfortable with. As he said, when reaching 300 weeks: "I always felt tennis was easier for me playing as world No.1 than actually getting there.”             

Winning Grand Slam titles inevitably propels players towards the top of the ranking but not everyone who has sat on top has tasted Grand Slam glory. Lendl was the first man to reach No.1 before winning a Slam – in February 1983 – but of course he went on to win eight Grand Slam titles in a glittering career. The only man to be No.1 but never win a Slam was Chile’s Marcelo Rios, who had six weeks at the top but never quite managed it at Slam level.


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