The Rankings That Changed Tennis
From print outs on gigantic paper sheets and late-night phone calls chasing results to today’s real-time system, straight off a Chair Umpire’s electronic scorecard, the Pepperstone ATP Rankings have been an indispensable barometer connecting every level of professional tennis since its debut on 23 August 1973.
Just as tennis experienced a wide-spread technology revolution, in how racquets and balls are manufactured, and court surfaces are prepared, 50 years ago today, the Pepperstone ATP Rankings provided an intellectual revolution that quickly earned legitimacy and credibility among players, tournaments and fans. Incredibly, to-date, only 28 legendary performers have reached the universal goal of any tennis player; what kids dream of, and pros fight tooth and nail for: to become the No. 1 in the world. And fewer still, just 18, have finished the season as year-end No. 1.
Without the foresight of ATP founding fathers, the rankings landscape may look entirely different. From the dawn of Open Era tennis in April 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.”
Yet in an instant, tournament entries determined by discretion were consigned to history. Before the advent of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, 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’.
“I remember playing in Philadelphia and [Pancho] Gonzales was bringing more people into the event, so he was the top seed. The players that brought more spectators to the tournament were seeded, so the tournament had the most well-known players and not necessarily the best players.” 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.”
Chris Lewis remembers, “I would write letters to Tournament Directors informing them of my results to-date and those Tournament Directors would be weighing up and measuring those results against other players who’d written in. At the end of the day, Tournament Directors would make an arbitrary decision over which players were in and those who were out. When the ATP Rankings were introduced, they were universally accepted as the ‘greatest thing ever’. Now that the subjectivity was moved and in its place was total objectivity. The rankings system was objective and in sport you can’t argue with results: someone wins, and someone loses.”
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, produced and printed out on gigantic computer paper by TRW Inc., a major aerospace company, in El Segundo on Santa Monica Bay. Bob Kramer would take drawsheets from around the world, create a list of the players and meticulously calculate their points earned from his West Pico Boulevard office in Los Angeles. Dennis Spencer, who replaced Bob Kramer on Pepperstone 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!”
Ilie Nastase was the first World No. 1 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. Photo Credit: AFP/AFP via Getty Images
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.”
Stan Smith. Photo Credit: Roger Jackson/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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!
Finishing as the year-end No. 1 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings had prestige and there was instant recognition among players, who used to wait hours, sometimes days to see their ranking. “Prior to the Weekly, now and again, if you were at home, players would place a telephone call to an ATP office, or we’d receive a slip of paper in the post informing us of our ranking,” recalls Smith. 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.
In future years, after 11 issues in 1973, the Pepperstone 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. Then, just as now for 2,053 players, there was real pride in being on the 52-week rolling professional tennis ladder. The ATP ranked doubles players for the first time on 1 March 1976.
With the creation of the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings — launched in May 2022 — a dynamic feature enabling fans, players and media to track the real-time rankings and impact of match results day-to-day, the system continues to serve as a true measure of excellence. It was the most significant addition to the ATP’s Rankings properties since the 2000 introduction of the calendar-year Race, helping track players’ journeys to qualify for the season-ending Nitto ATP Finals.
Pete Sampras first became World No. 1 in 1993. Photo Credit: Doug Collier/AFP via Getty Images
For years, the ATP Supervisor’s computer was updated through live scoring and at the end of each week, the ATP Supervisor provides the ATP Rankings Coordinator with data from their respective tournaments. The information continues to be verified Sunday night (ET) in a database, from which everything from the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, Lexus ATP Head2Head records and match statistics are generated and made available via ATPTour.com on Sunday night or in the early hours of Monday, depending on when the last tournament of the week finishes.
It’s a far cry from the days when early Pepperstone 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 50 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 [now named Pepperstone ATP 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 player 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, and the average system underwent further tweaks in 1986.
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. The bonus points system ran from 1973 until the end of the 1999 ATP Tour season.
The 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?”
Novak Djokovic has been year-end World No. 1 a record seven times. Credit: Clive Brunskill
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 [now ATP Masters 1000 and ATP 500s], World Series [now ATP 250s] 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 Masters 1000s], the ranking system began to count 18 events for most players. All 13 results at the majors and ATP Masters 1000s would count, as would a player’s best five performances at the five International Series events [now ATP 250s and 500s].
This 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.”
Today as the ATP celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, media and fans can not only watch and follow their favourite players’ results and their fluctuations in form, but also their world ranking in real-time. 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 50 years ago and compare that to now.” In establishing an objective merit-based ranking system on 23 August 1973, the ATP’s founding fathers, and their grand vision helped lay the foundations for the sport’s growth that we know today.
Carlos Alcaraz with the ATP Year-End No. 1 presented by Pepperstone trophy in 2022. Photo Credit: Corinne Dubreuil/ATP Tour