The ATP first used a computerised ranking system in 1973, and although the methods used to calculate players’ points have changed several times since then, the prestige of holding the top ranking has not.
Over the last 40 years, 25 different men have been ranked as the number one tennis player in the world. Here is the full list, along with a brief résumé of their standout career achievements.
The very first man to hold the top ranking was one of the most gifted ever to wield a racket. Romania’s Ilie Nastase combined great showmanship with a devastatingly effective game to win two Grand Slams and four end-of-year Championships. Although not a beacon of mental strength, the tantrum-prone Nastase entertained crowds throughout the 1970s and is regarded as a hero in his homeland to this day.
He may not be as well known to casual tennis fans as compatriots Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, but John Newcombe was a prominent member of the great Aussie contingent of the 1960s and 1970s. The winner of seven Grand Slams, he was one of the best serve-and-volley practitioners of his day, as well as a great sport.
A man whose sportsmanship was often called into question during his heyday, Jimmy Connors was tennis’ original brash American. Tempestuous, litigious but incredibly determined, Connors won eight Grand Slam titles and showed remarkable longevity as well as versatility. He won the US Open on three different surfaces and still holds the record for most tour wins at 1,337.
4. Bjorn Borg, ranked no.1 for 109 weeks between August 1977 and August 1981
In cold contrast to Connors was Sweden’s “Ice Man” Bjorn Borg. The pioneer of the two-handed backhand, Borg dominated Wimbledon and Roland Garros in the late 1970s, winning five and six titles there respectively. One of the first tennis superstars, with his distinctive game and undeniable good looks, Borg shocked the world when he announced his retirement at the age of 26.
Borg’s most famous rival was his polar opposite in temperament and playing style. John McEnroe became synonymous with Wimbledon in the early 1980s, his exquisite left-handed serve-and-volley game perfectly suited to the grass courts of the All England Club, even if his behaviour wasn’t. The winner of three Wimbledons and four US Opens, he continues to be a strong presence in tennis today.
A man who certainly did not wear his heart on his sleeve, Ivan Lendl was a ruthless, unflappable baseliner with metronomic consistency. Powerfully built and able to adapt his game to different surfaces, Lendl won two Australian Opens, three French Opens and three US Opens, and was twice a runner-up at Wimbledon. Among many records, his eight consecutive appearances in the US Open final stand out. Nowadays, Lendl is perhaps best known to the younger generation as the man who coached Andy Murray to Grand Slam glory.
Wilander’s relatively brief reign atop the ATP rankings does not fully reflect his achievements during the 1980s. A seven-time Grand Slam champion, his 1988 sweep of the Australian, French and US Opens remains one of the most dominant seasons in tennis history. Although his results declined shortly thereafter, he continued to compete with diligence and style until his retirement in 1996.
Following Borg and Wilander, the third Swede to reach the rankings summit was one of the game’s greatest ever serve-volleyers, as well as the possessor of one of its most sublime backhands. Stefan Edberg reached the final of all the Grand Slam tournaments, and won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open twice each. He came within a set of completing the career Grand Slam in 1989, but lost that year’s French Open showpiece to Michael Chang.
“Boom boom” Becker burst onto the tennis scene when he won Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 1985. He went on two win twice more at the All England Club, and also won two Australian Opens and one US Open. Famously athletic, he liked to follow up his powerful serves with lunging volleys at the net, but was also able to hit pounding winners from the back of the court.
Jim Courier achieved most of his success early on in his career. He won his first Grand Slam aged 20 at the 1991 French Open, and also reached the final of the US Open that year. In 1992, he won the Australian and French Opens back-to-back, the most recent man to do so. The closest he came to a Wimbledon title was in 1993, when he lost the final to Pete Sampras.
The moment he won the 1990 US Open as a 19-year-old, it was clear that Pete Sampras was a major star, but few would have predicted how many records he would break over the course of the next 12 years. An all court player capable of hitting winners off both wings, Sampras’ most dangerous weapon was his serve, which bailed him out of sticky situations time and again. Pistol Pete won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, including a record-equalling seven Wimbledon, and is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest players of all time.
Providing a perfect foil for Sampras’s cool, composed persona was the flamboyant Andre Agassi. The Las Vegan first hit the big time when he won Wimbledon in 1992, the first of eight Grand Slam titles, and he remained one of the most popular players on tour for the next few years. After a decline in 1996-1997, in which his ranking plummeted into triple figures, Agassi regrouped and enjoyed some of his most successful years at the turn of the century. He is the only man to win the career Golden Grand Slam and the end-of-year championships.
Although he has only one Grand Slam title to his name – the 1995 French Open – Thomas Muster was the dominant player of his day on clay, winning the vast majority of his 44 singles titles on the dirt. While he failed to win a single match at Wimbledon during his career, he performed well indoors and on hard courts, and is one of the few players to have won Masters Series titles on clay, carpet and concrete.
The only player to reach the top of the rankings without winning a major title, Marcelo Rios came closest to Grand Slam glory when he finished runner-up at the 1998 Australian Open. Regarded as one of the most naturally talented players on tour, his progress was hindered by various injuries over the following years, and he retired with little fanfare in 2004.
Carlos Moya was more than just another Spanish clay courter: the 1998 French Open champion also reached the Australian Open final and the semi-finals of the US Open. Blessed with a blistering forehand and a formidable baseline game, the Majorcan won 20 singles titles in a 15-year career.
His game may not have been one for the purists, but Yevgeny Kafelnikov knew how to maximise his talents and had a remarkably accomplished career. He won the 1995 French Open, the 1999 Australian Open and reached the quarter-finals of Wimbledon and the semis of the US Open. In addition, he won the Olympic Gold Medal at the Sydney 2000 Games.
The man with the shortest ever/shortest possible stay at the rankings summit is the two-time US Open champion Pat Rafter. Perennially popular on the tour and worldwide, he was one of the best serve-volleyers of his day, and twice a runner-up at Wimbledon. The closest he came to the title in SW19 was the epic 2001 final, in which he lost out to Goran Ivanisevic 9-7 in the deciding set.
Possibly the most maddening, talented, unpredictable player on this list, Marat Safin was a Russian giant with an incredibly powerful game. He stunned Pete Sampras at the 2000 US Open and looked set to dominate the tour, but inconsistency and injury hampered his development. He won the Australian Open in 2005 and made it to the Wimbledon semi-finals as recently as 2008, but Safin will be remembered by many as a racket-smashing headcase who ultimately underachieved.
Although he failed to get past the quarter-final stage of any other Grand Slam, Brazil’s Gustavo Kuerten won three Roland Garros titles during his 13-year career. He earned the number one ranking by beating Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi back-to-back on the indoor hard courts of Lisbon at the 2000 ATP World Tour finals. Nicknamed “Guga”, he favoured heavily topspun groundstrokes that gradually ground down his opponents.
20. Lleyton Hewitt, ranked no.1 for 80 weeks between November 2001 and June 2003
The youngest ever man to be ranked world number one, Lleyton Hewitt shocked Pete Sampras to win the 2001 US Open and took the Wimbledon title the following year. A consistent, crafty counterpuncher, he makes up for a lack of power with superb shot selection and an indomitable spirit. Hewitt is still competing today, and one of his best wins of recent years came when he defeated Roger Federer in the 2010 Halle final.
The “Mosquito” enjoyed a career-best year in 2003, winning the French Open and reaching the final of the US Open. Astonishingly quick around the court, Juan Carlos Ferrero won 16 singles titles during his 14-year career, and helped Spain to three Davis Cup triumphs. Although his last Grand Slam semi-final came at the Australian Open in 2004, he made the last eight of Wimbledon in 2007 and 2009, proving that he could adapt his game to suit all surfaces.
The most recent American to attain the top ranking was one of the game’s greatest ever servers. Capable of firing down aces that clocked close to 150mph, Andy Roddick’s shotgun-like delivery was legendary, and breaking him was a newsworthy event for many opponents. His sole Grand Slam win came at the 2003 US Open; unfortunately for the Nebraskan, his peak coincided with that of Roger Federer. Of the three Wimbledon finals he lost to the Swiss, the most famous was the 2009 showpiece that finished 16-14 in the deciding set.
Holding the record for most weeks as the ATP’s number one ranked player is the man who holds the record for most things in tennis, Roger Federer. The Swiss maestro redefined dominance in the mid-2000s, winning on every surface against all manner of opponents. Among an endless list of career highlights are his 2009 French Open triumph, which completed a career Grand Slam, and the 2012 Wimbledon title, his seventh at the All England Club. Already the holder of 17 Grand Slam trophies, the man many regard as the greatest of all time is still playing, and still winning.
Federer’s trophy cabinet would undoubtedly be even more stacked had one Rafael Nadal not arrived on the scene. The King of Clay’s statistics on the dirt are mind-boggling, and his record eight Roland Garros titles might never be surpassed. Nadal’s defeat of Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final is considered one of the greatest matches ever played, and it came in the year he also won the Olympic Gold Medal. Relentless, aggressive and mentally resilient, his success – 12 Grand Slams and counting – will continue as long as his troublesome knees allow him to play.
The current world number one is the holder of six Grand Slam titles, with only the French Open missing from his résumé. Once regarded as a quitter, Djokovic transformed his diet, his training and his attitude to become one of the most mentally tough players of all time. His 2011 season ranks as one of the greatest in tennis history, and there is no doubt that we will see him hoist even more silverware in the future. He is the iron man in a Golden Era.