To be the best in the world at what you do is oftentimes subjective, but not in tennis. Tennis rankings are a straightforward accumulation of points over the previous 52 weeks. Do better than you did the same week last year and add to your points tally. Fall in the opening round at a tournament where you’re defending champion and prepare for a slide in the rankings.
To claim the No. 1 spot, however, it’s less how much you play, and more how well you play. In the last two decades, led by tennis’ Big 3 – Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal, top players have been playing fewer tournaments, but earning more points.
Since the ranking system came into effect in 1973, allotting anywhere from 250 to 2,000 points for winning a tournament, 26 players have been able to say they’ve been better than any other human at hitting a fuzzy yellow ball between the lines.
Since 1979, the ATP has published updated rankings every week, opening the way for a player to occupy the top spot for a single week (Pat Rafter) or for what amounts to six whole years (Roger Federer, 310 weeks).
The mantle of World No. 1 not only carries with it a place in tennis history, but also tangible material rewards. An increasing number of sponsors, including racquet, sportswear, and apparel companies, are opting for lower base guarantees, preferring to attach significant bonuses to performance, where reaching the top ranking could bring with it millions, not to mention higher appearance fees in subsequent tournaments and exhibitions.
The ATP has its own bonus pool where the year-end No. 1 stands to receive up to $3,490,000. However, for the game’s very top players, it’s all about the glory rather than the gold.
Federer delighted fans by returning to the No. 1 spot for a brief period last spring, almost 14 and a half years after first achieving the feat.
While reaching the No. 1 spot is amazing in itself, the year-end No. 1 ranking has even more cachet. As one of the biggest tournaments at the end of the tennis calendar, the Rolex Shanghai Masters often figures into the battle for year-end No. 1, as it did in 2016 when Andy Murray claimed the top spot just weeks after lifting the trophy in Shanghai.
This year is no different, as defending champion Novak Djokovic looks to come out on top against Rafael Nadal when all is said and done. Nole said: “I have been in this position many times before, obviously. Rafa has had an amazing year so far, and I have to do well here in order to really be kind of having a chance or go toe to toe with him in the indoor season.”
It feels like a lifetime ago since Chinese superfans took to calling Djokovic by “Tsan Dua Zi” after a TV character whose name includes the same beginning sound as Djokovic’s as well as the number three, a nod to the Serb’s perennial position behind Federer and Nadal early on in his career. Now, however, he’s primed to tie Pete Sampras’ record for six year-end No. 1 finishes and is within striking distance of overtaking the American’s No. 2 position for total weeks at the top as early as January 13, 2020, and even Roger Federer’s record by June 30, 2020. What a feat that would be.
How much do you know about the World No. 1s? (scroll down for answers)
1. Who are the only two players to have reached World No. 1 without first winning a Grand Slam?
2. Who was the youngest-ever World No. 1?
3. Who was the oldest-ever year-end World No. 1?
4. Which five players held the No. 1 spot in 1999 (most ever No. 1s in a year)?
5. Patrick Rafter had the shortest stint at No. 1. Who had the second shortest?
1. Ivan Lendl and Marcelo Rios
2. Lleyton Hewitt at 20 years, 268 days
3. Novak Djokovic in 2018 at 31 years, 223 days
4. Pete Sampras, Carlos Moya, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Andre Agassi, and Patrick Rafter
5. Carlos Moya (2 weeks)