The Rankings That Changed Tennis (Part II)

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.

In 1973 and until the launch of the International Tennis Weekly, with the edition of 9-15 January 1976 - after ATP headquarters had moved to Dallas following the departure of Executive Director Jack Kramer - the latest rankings were distributed internally and posted on press and locker room walls – after the ATP received permission from the tournaments! In future years, after 11 issues in 1973, ATP Rankings started to be published with greater frequency – 1974 (11), 1975 (13), 1976 (23), 1977 (34), 1978 (40) – until 1979, when they were produced on a weekly basis, 43 times that season. The ATP ranked doubles players for the first time on 1 March 1976.

Finishing as the year-end No. 1 in the ATP Rankings had prestige and there was instant recognition among players, who used to wait hours, sometimes days to see their ranking. If Jim McManus or another member of the ATP Board arrived with an International Tennis Weekly he would get besieged by other players. “Any player reading an ITW would get mobbed, as at the time it was often the only way to find out your ranking and other pertinent tournament information,” says Dennis Spencer, an ATP Tour Manager and Publicity Director from 1975-79. 

Today, 2,092 players are listed on a 52-week rolling system. During every match the ATP Supervisor’s computer is updated through live scoring. At the end of each week, the ATP Supervisor provides the ATP Rankings Coordinator with data from their respective tournaments. The information is then crunched Sunday night in a database, from which everything from the ATP Rankings, FedEx ATP Head2Head records and match statistics are generated and made available to players, media and fans via ATPWorldTour.com. Unlike yesteryear, the calculations take just a few hours.

First International Tennis Weekly, 9-15 January 1976It’s a far cry from the days when early ATP Rankings crunchers, Bob Kramer and Spencer, used to spend their Sundays pouring over the giant print outs supplied by rocket folk at TRW, and calling around tournaments desperately seeking results and even draws. “Initially, we would receive results and draw sheets by postal mail,” says Bob Kramer. “Sometimes we would have to telephone to verify that a tournament had even taken place!” Spencer recalls, “Often, I would call and call until someone at a tournament picked up the phone to tell me who won. Sometimes the rankings were not finalised until after Monday night tennis in the United States. “Then we sent the ITW off to the printers,” adds Spencer. “We had a Western Union telex in the Dallas office, so multiple times a week I would type out a telex tape with the rankings, draws, results, etc and transmit it around the world.” Each Friday, the ITW would be distributed at tournaments.

Weller Evans, former Tour Manager and ATP Executive Director, Player Relations, said:  “Every player who earned a prize money cheque in the past 40 years should appreciate the significance and celebrate the creation of the ATP World Rankings with gratitude. Beginning in 1973, no longer was his employment status for the week based upon the discretion of tournament directors  Instead, a completely objective system of merit determined whether he played or not, without regard for any other factors except his performance on the courts. Where in other sports, a coach determines your playing time – and ultimately your livelihood – thanks to the ATP World Rankings, tennis is sometimes cruelly but always coldly objective.”

The ATP International Player Rankings of 23 August 1973 were originally an average system, with the points accumulated over a 52-week period divided by the number of tournaments played (minimum divisor of 12, the number of tournaments player leadership at that time felt qualified a players as a ‘full-time’ professional). Tournaments were awarded points based on prize money (minimum of $25,000), draw size and strength of field. The merit-based system was backed by the players.

Bonus points, an idea devised by former ATP European Director Richard Evans, Fred McNair, Sherwood Stewart, Owen Davidson and Raymond Moore in a St. Petersburg, Florida, hotel room, were awarded for beating seeded players. This was amended in 1983, when the bonus points were based on the ranking of the player defeated – first the Top 75, then expanded to Top 150. “Players got points for beating top ranked players, no matter what the round,” recalls Richard Evans.

DrysdaleThe International Tennis Federation had conducted discussions about a rankings system of its own early in the Open Era. “The ITF did realise the power of ATP points and there was talk of a competing ranking,” says Cliff Drysdale, the first ATP President. “But I don't think it lasted long and the ATP Rankings were quite quickly accepted by the game and the players. There was a lot of discussion about the details of the system, but not the general need for it.”

Spencer, the ATP’s first full-time paid employee on 1 June 1975, admits, “Some tournaments were delighted to have a legitimate way to determine their acceptances while others loved the past where they could decide unilaterally what players were playing in their tournaments. Most players accepted the ATP Rankings, but there was controversy initially about what they were for. Were they to recognise the best player of the year? Or was it for the best player of the week, fortnight or 365 days a year?”

Stan Smith, a leading player throughout the 1970s, provides a player’s perspective. “The main concern of those that helped to shape the ranking system was that it be a fair reflection of the results. There was a great deal of conversation and tweaking during the formative years as to the weight of the various tournaments and even the weight of the rounds in the tournaments. The prize money per round was also debated in conjunction with the ranking points. But all the players were on the same page as to the importance of it for the game. It was perhaps the most important asset of the ATP as we established our union and helped a healthy growth of the game.”

The ATP recognised that the ‘average system’ had two flaws. First, a player could stay at home and not play; let his poor results from the previous year drop off and watch his ranking rise without hitting a ball. A top player could also play a small event (perhaps because he needed the additional match play or it was good preparation for upcoming larger events), win the tournament and actually see his ranking go down if he had a high enough average. In general, it certainly did not encourage playing on anything other than your favourite surface.

To address those concerns, the new ATP Tour in 1990 introduced the ‘Best of 14’ ranking system, where a player’s best 14 results from the previous 52 weeks counted towards his ranking. The emphasis was therefore placed squarely on winning and the negative effect of an early loss in a tournament was less immediate and impactful. Weller Evans says, “I believe the genesis of this system may have come from the Swiss player Heinz Gunthardt and his familiarity with downhill skiing, where only a certain number of best runs ‘counted’.” In addition, now points were awarded to categories of tournaments: Grand Slams, Championship Series, World Series and Challengers, with prize money levels within each.

In 2000, to further encourage participation at the Grand Slams and the ATP’s premier series of nine tournaments (now known as ATP World Tour Masters 1000s), the ranking system began to count 18 events for most players. All 13 results at the majors and ATP World Tour Masters 1000s would count, as would a player’s best five performances at the five International Series events [now ATP World Tour 250s and 500s].

ATP Rankings, 23 August 2013This system, for the most part in effect today, found a middle ground where year-long participation is encouraged while maintaining the integrity of the competition at tennis' greatest events. As Charlie Pasarell, who so many professional tennis players have to thank, insists, “The ATP Rankings changed everything.

"In August 1973, the most deserving, qualified players that entered events regardless of their nationality were guaranteed participation. This was the biggest impact of the ATP Rankings to the worldwide tour. Now, the public were watching the best players that wanted to play in tournaments; an essential ingredient to the credibility of the sport's competitions. Likewise, for seeding players, which would provide fair draws based on performance. Finally, it gave the sport a system to select our No. 1 player, our No. 2 player and so on. All of the above were the motivations and reasons why the ATP created the ranking system. All of the players in the early 1970s contributed to the process and as a result backed it 100 per cent.”

Tonight, the ATP celebrates the 40th anniversary of the ATP Rankings, with many of the 25 year-end No. 1s in New York City. It will also be a chance to remember the ATP’s founding fathers and their grand vision. Says Pasarell, “A good way to analyse the significant impact of the ATP Rankings, is to check how tournaments determined their entries into their draws 40 years ago and compare that to now.

- This story was first published on 23 August, 2013

Back To Part I: The Rankings That Changed Tennis