To determine who the best tennis players in the world are, a rankings system is used with players compiling points throughout the events of the previous 52 weeks. Though not a perfect method for determining the top players in order, it’s a great way to determine who has been the strongest performer on the biggest stages in the past year.
Breaking down how the system works, winning Grand Slam events is obviously the fastest way to get big points, with the champion of each of the four tournaments receiving 2,000 ATP points. Points are also given to anyone reaching the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. Other tournaments aren’t nearly as prestigious points-wise, but you can still get 1,000 for winning an ATP Masters 1000 event. Points are given all the way down to the ITF Men’s World Tennis Tour with Futures M15 event winners taking home 15 ATP points.
The ATP rankings haven’t always been a part of professional tennis, however. In the early days of the sport, the criteria to enter tournaments and where you were placed in the bracket were strictly up to tournament personnel and the tennis federations for each country. Then, the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) union was born in 1973, paving the way for earlier rounds of the tournament to be more balanced while the later rounds were more competitive with the top players frequently meeting for the title instead of at random spots throughout a tournament.
As part of the union forming, an objective rankings system was one of the biggest goals that players had in mind. Beforehand, rankings were determined mostly by how big of a draw a certain player was. “The ranking system was a hot point for the players and it continued to be very important,” said Stan Smith, a player who had been at the top of the rankings during that time.
With players taking more control of professional tennis over the organizers, the rankings system was finally introduced to the world for men’s singles tennis on August 23, 1973. In that first edition, Bob Kramer had been gathering results for the past 52 weeks in any way that he could. Whether it be mail or telephone, Kramer spent countless hours making sure the rankings were just right.
With 186 players being ranked in total, legendary American player Jimmy Connors started off the top 10. Tom Okker, Adriano Panatta, John Newcombe, and Ken Rosewall took the ninth through sixth spots, respectively. Australian Rod Laver was in the fifth spot, with Arthur Ashe just ahead of him. The previously mentioned Stan Smith was in third, with Spain’s Manuel Orantes at second. Finally, the world’s first ATP number one ranked player was Ilie Nastase of Romania.
Nastase would go on to win seven Grand Slam titles across singles and doubles competitions and was actually the first athlete to endorse the Nike brand. A member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Nastase was one of the few players that were apprehensive of the rankings despite being number one, saying that the number was “hanging” over each player. In regards to being the inaugural number one, Nastase said “I won eight tournaments in a row to do it.”
A little more than two years after the men received their first ranking, the WTA rankings were released for the first time in November 1975. Chris Evert was the first female at the top of the world rankings, and she would reach that number one spot on nine different occasions in her illustrious career.
As for who has held the most time spent at number one since the rankings were released, they are records that are unlikely to ever be broken. A player on either the men’s or women’s side would have to hold the number spot for more than a combined seven years to top Novak Djokovic or Steffi Graf.