The Rankings That Changed Tennis (Part I)

The ATP Rankings were born on 23 August 1973. After quickly earning legitimacy and credibility, the rankings have become an indispensable part of tennis accepted universally by players, tournaments and fans.

It’s a universal goal of tennis players: To become the No. 1 player in the world. Kids dream of it, pros fight tooth and nail for it, yet it remains among the most elusive achievements in the sport. In the 40-year history of the ATP Rankings, only 25 players have reached the summit, with just 16 finishing the season as year-end No. 1.

Yet without the foresight of ATP founding fathers, the rankings landscape may look entirely different. From the dawn of Open Era tennis in 1968, rankings were largely a subjective calculation, generated by national tennis associations, circuits and a number of eminent tennis journalists who compiled their own lists.

“Tingay's was really the only one that counted,” recalls former ATP European Director and acclaimed tennis writer Richard Evans, referring to the rankings produced by The Daily Telegraph’s Lance Tingay. “National Associations produced their own rankings, which meant that tournament committees attempted to secure the No. 1 player from each country,” remembers John Barrett, a former player and ATP Board member. “The major championships permitted associations to nominate four players from their country.”

It was all low tech and with no real purpose, as tournaments invited players on the basis of their reputation as Stan Smith, the World No. 1 in 1971-72, highlights. “The history leading up to the ranking system included a ‘star system’ as far as entries into the tournaments. Some players would be on a list as players that could help sell tickets for the event and they would have priority over others in acceptance into tournaments. This caused great concern for those that didn’t have a big name and were borderline getting into events. There were definitely some battles with tournaments over this star system.” Bob Kramer adds, “Tournament draws often featured eight players based on domestic national rankings, eight players based on an international ranking and a handful of other players worthy of acceptance.”

By August 1972, it became clear that the newly created Association of Tennis Professionals needed to establish a ranking system free of personal opinion and prejudice. “Jack Kramer, the first Executive Director of the ATP, wanted prize money only tournaments and not events that offered guarantees to players – as had happened in the ‘shamateur’ era of the past decade, when you were invited on reputation,” adds Barrett. Smith remembers, “The ranking system was a hot point for the players and it continued to be very important. The ATP felt that it wanted to control the ranking program and not let the ITF or anyone else control it.”

Working with the first ATP President, Cliff Drysdale, Jack Kramer sought help from the ATP Board including Arthur Ashe, Jim McManus and Charlie Pasarell, and received special input from Owen Davidson, Mike Estep, Fred McNair, Sherwood Stewart and others to devise a practical computer ranking that provided a fair analysis of a player’s performance as well as an objective means to determine entries into tournament. “We did not want the computer to be used as a way to incentivise a player to enter any particular tournament,” says Drysdale. “In other words, to purely be a way to rank players according to ability. Nothing more. In those early days we also gave points weighted according to the ranking of players he beat. So if you beat a seed, you got more points.”

Twelve months after the ATP was founded, Ilie Nastase became the first No. 1. He was among 186 players to be listed in the first ‘ATP International Player Rankings’ of Monday, 23 August 1973 (pictured below), produced and printed out on gigantic computer paper by TRW, a major aerospace company, having been meticulously calculated by Bob Kramer from his Los Angeles office. Dennis Spencer, who replaced Bob Kramer on ATP Rankings duty in December 1975, says, “Bob made an agreement with a guy from TRW to process the rankings. Most journalists thought that made sense because in their minds the ATP Rankings might as well have been from outer space!”

Bob Kramer recalls, “I struck a deal with Simon Ramo of TRW to provide a resource based on a points system to establish the rankings, which was one of the key principles behind the founding of the ATP in 1972. Ramo was a renowned physicist, engineer, and LA business leader/founder and the 'R' in aerospace manufacturing legend, TRW. As tennis enthusiast, neighbour and a friend of Jack Kramer’s, he 'loaned' us the computer time and initially one of his computer engineers, Bob Kurle, to help ATP run the rankings data each month and eventually, weekly.

“Administered by a panel of people, tournaments were initially divided into categories – A, B, C, etc. – which enabled event organisers to select the players according to their ATP Ranking and determine seedings. I provided the tournament results and related information to Bob Kurle.” Kurle then imputed the data into a server the size of the first floor of the ATP Americas office in Ponte-Vedra Beach [2,020 square metres]. “Within three days, Simon and Bob returned the rankings on huge perforated sheets. I remember putting ATP Rankings sheets from floor to ceiling, week after week on the walls of our LA office. I would double check results, circle inaccuracies and, if required, returned the sheets to TRW for a re-run. Because the ATP produced the rankings once a month in the first few years, we had the time for the manual process, unlike today.”

Spencer confirms Bob Kramer’s memories, but insists that, “There were many weeks when for whatever reason the ‘computer’ didn’t work so I did the rankings by hand. I would print the previous rankings out on the large computer paper, lay it out on my living room floor, get on my hands and knees to mark out the week(s) that were dropping off, add the new results and calculate the new rankings.”

Read Part II: The Rankings That Changed Tennis