When it comes to individual sports, the title of “World Number One” is the ultimate feat an athlete can achieve. Tennis may be the most popular example of such a sport, as it is played worldwide and is heavily driven by rankings from its lowest tiers to the professional stage. While the World Number One and other top players are very famous and appear in widely-known tournaments, the complex structure of men’s professional tennis and its ranking system are by no means common knowledge. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) is the governing body that organizes the events and rankings that tennis fans are so familiar with. ATP tennis is unique in that it runs year-round with a higher activity level than most other professional sports, as tournaments take place on a weekly basis. While the four Grand Slams are the most prestigious of these events, every tournament throughout the year can impact a player’s world ranking.
The ATP Tour, the circuit that men's professional tennis runs on, consists of several tiers that vary in prestige and quality of competition. The tier of a given tournament determines how many ATP points a player earns for winning matches in that tournament. The four main playing fields are the ATP 250, ATP 500, ATP Masters 1000, and Grand Slams. A player can participate in as many tournaments as he wants, but outside of Slams and Masters, only his six best results from all other events will count towards his ranking points. The number of points a player receives at an event increases as he wins more rounds, with the winner receiving the number of points indicated by the tournament's tier (the winner of a Slam gets 2000). Furthermore, the ranking system runs on a rolling basis and players must constantly defend the points they have. Essentially, a player only gains points from a tournament if he makes it to a further round than he did at that tournament the year before. If he cannot do this, he loses the points he failed to defend (or breaks even if he has the same result as he did a year prior). Through this point system, at the beginning of each week, the player with the most ATP points is the current World Number One.
The system is very straightforward, but becoming World Number One is easier said than done. Since the conception of this ranking system in 1973, only 26 men have sat atop the perch of men's tennis. Considering the rigid structure of the ATP Tour, scheduling is crucial to a player's road to relevance. To reach number one in the rankings, the question that players should ask themselves is, "How can I optimize my ATP schedule to maximize the points I earn?"
In recent years, there has been a noticeable trend in the activity level of the reigning World Number One:
Year by year, the World Number Ones are generally finishing with more points despite playing fewer tournaments per year. It is clear that careful selectivity plays a key role in the path to the top. Attending a large number of tournaments is unnecessary if a player can plan his year out in such a way that he maximizes his performance in the events that he does attend. For instance, going deep in a Masters 1000 is far more valuable than trying to win two ATP 250 tournaments in the same time span. To further examine such selective scheduling among top players, we need not look past the last fifteen years. This era of tennis has featured an unprecedented control of the top spot by three players who are clearly a cut above the rest.
Of the 782 weeks from 2004 to 2018, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal have combined to hold the number one ranking for 738 weeks. While they are all brilliant tennis players who are capable of racking up points through talent alone, sustaining that level of success over the course of nearly two decades requires intelligent tour scheduling as well. Looking back to the 2004 season (the first full year where all three played tour level matches), here is how the Big 3 have split up their tours:
When gunning for world number one, the Grand Slams and almost all Masters events are essentially non-negotiable. However, the attendance of the Big 3 at 250 and 500 events is extremely similar as well. Although these lower-level events are the most abundant on tour, the fact that all three of them play roughly four per year suggests that they do not place much value on these tournaments. While these events offer ample opportunities to gain chunks of points quite easily, the Big 3 most likely use them as tuneups to keep themselves in form as they head into the top-tier tournaments. Consequently, the line between the lower two tiers becomes blurred as the Big 3 categorize them under one umbrella.
Furthermore, there are notable similarities in the way that the Big 3 space out their tournaments. Below are maps that depict the activity levels of each of the Big 3 based on the ATP points they earned each week in the years that they finished as World Number One:
One thing that jumps out is the way that all three of them make it a point to be active in the weeks leading up to Grand Slams and then rest in the weeks following them. Coming off of a one-month layover from the previous season, they all play an ATP 250 tournament in the two weeks right before the Australian Open. Similarly, they all play nearly the entire month of May heading into the French Open. Because clay is a slower surface that requires lots of stamina and the clay court season is relatively short compared to the hard court swings, they need to gain as much match play as possible on the red dirt before Roland Garros rolls around. Moreover, this pattern of tuning up for Slams is especially clear during August, as they each play at least two tournaments to prepare for the U.S. Open at the end of the month. The time leading up to Wimbledon is unique in that there is less than a month between it and the conclusion of the French Open. Regardless, the Big 3 still make sure to squeeze in exactly one grass tournament during this brief period. Given that grass is the fastest surface and favors shorter points, it does not require as much conditioning as clay. Therefore, one week on and one week off allows them to achieve the optimal balance between getting in form for Wimbledon and having ample recovery time from Roland Garros.
Once the Slams have finished, the Big 3 take their rest. After the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open, they all take at least two weeks off. As discussed earlier, the time after the French Open is an exception because of how quickly Wimbledon arrives, so they have no choice but to play a tune-up grass tournament immediately after Roland Garros (although they still make sure to take a week off). The tournaments that take place immediately after Slams conclude are of little to no benefit for the Big 3. To them, the entire purpose of smaller events is to build up their confidence and sharpen their form heading into the larger ones. Therefore, resting after Slams is the most practical course of action, especially since all three of them are over 30 years of age.
Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic all specialize on different surfaces (grass, clay, and hard court respectively) and possess strikingly distinct play styles. Despite these differences, they demonstrate a clear similarity with the way that they cater their tournament scheduling to the Grand Slams. From a simple mathematical perspective, this is a sound formula for capitalizing on the limited opportunities they have throughout the year to reap the largest rewards on the tour. But not everyone is talented enough to take this approach.
The aforementioned formula makes plenty of sense, provided that the player in question is actually capable of consistently going deep in Grand Slams. Unfortunately, for most of the world, this is not the case. The Big 3 have claimed the lion's share of Grand Slam success for the last fifteen years. Of the 60 Grand Slams from 2004 to 2018, the Big 3 have won 50. On top of that, only four Grand Slam finals since 2004 have not featured a member of the Big 3. This level of dominance does not exist in any other sport and has completely shut down the natural transition from one generation to the next that sports typically go through. No player born in the 1990's or later has ever won a Grand Slam. In fact, only two have ever made it to a Grand Slam final. Essentially, Grand Slam trophies are a distant dream for the mere mortal tennis players of today's world. In order to stay alive in the race for World Number One, the rest of the top ten players must offset this deficit by playing many more tournaments in general. Below is a display of the paths that the Big 3 took last year to earn their ATP Points compared to those of five other top 10 players: Alexander Zverev, Kevin Anderson, Dominic Thiem, Kei Nishikori, and John Isner.
The workload disparity between the two parties is quite glaring. While the Big 3 had long, flat periods and moved up large chunks at a time, the other top ten players' paths were very busy. At a substantially high rate, they generally moved up small steps at a time in order to counteract the Grand Slam points that the Big 3 consistently racked up. On average, these five players roughly played 3 ATP 250 events and 5.5 ATP 500 events last year while the Big 3 averaged only 0.3 250s and 2 500s. Through such a high attendance rate, Alexander Zverev was able to finish within 40 points of Roger Federer for the number 3 spot, with Djokovic and Nadal at 1 and 2 respectively. It should be noted that Federer is 37 years old and has generally skipped the entire clay court season the last few years whereas Zverev is 22 years young and extremely hungry to become the face of men's tennis one day. That is no knock against Zverev; this high-frequency strategy makes plenty of sense for young players whose bodies can handle 25+ tournaments per year. And for those especially talented youngsters like Zverev and Thiem, it's the only chance they have of fighting for World Number One.
Overall, the approach that the rest of the top ten players take to shoot for World Number One is very different from that of the Big 3. While the Big 3 focus their entire year on the four Slams, there is a consensus among the rest of the tour in that the Slam trophies are extremely difficult for them. Despite being years younger, they would need the stars to align in order to outsmart Federer, outwork Nadal, or outclass Djokovic over five sets. So instead of banking on Slams, they feed on the many other tournaments throughout the year in order to get themselves within striking distance of a top ranking.
Naturally, becoming World Number One ultimately comes down to a matter of who collects the most ATP points. A player who wins six ATP 500 events and makes it to the semi-finals of all of the Masters events and Grand Slams already has more than 9000 points, which is generally enough to contend for World Number One. But in reality, there is a limit to how much one can game the system. In the history of tennis, there has only been one man (Marcelo Rios) to hold the number one ranking without ever winning a Grand Slam in his career. As obvious as it may sound, becoming World Number One requires sensational tennis, far beyond what that player normally puts on display. The Elo Rating System is an all-encompassing metric that calculates the relative skill levels of players based on factors such as quality of opposition and magnitude of matches won. Below is a comparative chart (dating back to 1973) of the Elo ratings of every year-end World Number One that year relative to his career Elo:
The average career Elo of all Year-End World Number Ones since 1973 is 2092.58, so the fact that players improve their Elo ratings by hundreds of points in their number one years underscores just how much they elevated their levels of play. We should acknowledge the two negative bars at the end that represent Nadal's 2017 and Djokovic's 2018 seasons. They finished those years with lower Elo ratings than years prior, but these lesser versions of themselves were still easily enough to end those years at atop the rankings. Generally speaking, World Number Ones reach new heights en route to claiming the ATP's top spot.
As we've discussed, the ATP tour has many layers, all of which factor into a player's world ranking. But it is clear that the road to World Number One goes through the Grand Slams. It is no coincidence that the Big 3 have won 52 combined Slams and controlled the number one ranking for almost 95% of the last fifteen years. Despite the efforts of other top players who play far more tournaments to make up for the Slams, the 2000 points gained from these four events is still too much to overcome.
Once the Slams have separated the contenders from the rest of the pack, the remaining tour events then determine who belongs at the top. Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray each have 3 Grand Slam titles, yet their careers have played out quite differently. Outside of the Slams, Murray has won 42 titles, 14 of which are Masters, whereas Wawrinka has won just 13 titles, only one of which is a Masters. Not surprisingly, Murray was the World Number One for 41 straight weeks, while Wawrinka has never even reached number 2. Slams are paramount, but what truly separates the top player from everyone else is the full body of work over 52 weeks. So, the next time you see a World Number One on TV, you'll have a better understanding of exactly how much weight that title carries.
Sources: ESPN, ATPTour, UltimateTennisStatistics