40 Years Ago: Putting Up the Ladder

by: Steve Tignor | December 05, 2013

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Ilie Nastase, the first No. 1. (Wikimedia Commons)

“The one perfect truth. That number arrives every Monday morning—pure, objective, apolitical, honest, and unwavering.”

That’s how former pro Bill Scanlon described his ATP computer ranking, which he first earned in the mid-1970s. Read now, four decades after those rankings began, his words may sound a little overblown. Surely Scanlon didn’t think a man can be reduced to a number, did he? Perhaps not, but like most of his colleagues of that era, he wasn’t completely opposed to the idea when it came to measuring himself as a player. At least it was a number he could believe in, and that he could control.

There’s that word again: control. On Monday I wrote about how it, rather than money, what was drove the ATP to walk out of Wimbledon in 1973, to protest fellow player Niki Pilic’s suspension from the tournament. The British press at the time made the men out to be ungrateful and greedy; but what they wanted more than anything was, after 60 years of amateur rule, to become masters of their own fates. A month later, in August ’73, the tour took another step in that direction by releasing its first set of computer rankings. 

It’s hard to imagine now what the big deal was; weekly rankings have become so associated with tennis that Roger Federer could appear in an (actually funny) commercial about the topic for ESPN (see it at the bottom of this post). That’s largely because we’ve forgotten, if we ever knew in the first place, about what came before. During the amateur era, there were no official, objective rankings. Instead, national federations decided who would be allowed onto the invite list for the Grand Slams, and who would make up the country’s Davis Cup teams. 

The players were at the mercy of all-powerful amateur officials, who were known to play favorites. To build their careers, Los Angeles natives Bobby Riggs and Pancho Gonzalez had to work around the head of the Southern California Tennis Association, Perry Jones, who controlled much of amateur tennis in the United States. Jones suspended Gonzalez for truancy, and he tried to keep Riggs out of prestigious national events because he thought he was too short to become a champion. When Riggs finally made it to Wimbledon, in 1939, he proved Jones wrong by sweeping the singles, doubles, and mixed.

The tournaments themselves had their own favorites. As Stan Smith told James Buddell for the ATP’s website earlier this year, “The history leading up to the ranking system included a ‘star system’ as far as entries into tournaments. Some players would be on a list as players that could help sell tickets, and they would have priority over others. The ranking system was a hot point for the players. The ATP felt that it wanted to control the ranking system and not let the ITF or anyone else control it.” 

On Monday, August 23, 1973, a year after its formation, the ATP produced its first set of (then-monthly) “computer” rankings based strictly on the players’ results from the previous 12 months. I put “computer” in quotes because, as Doug Robson wrote in a USA Today piece on the 40th anniversary of the rankings this summer, “At conception, there was no computer.”

Mike Estep, who ran the ranking system for much of the 1980s, told Robson, “The computer was just an adding machine that had the ability to divide by 12.” The calculations were done by hand, printed on a giant piece of paper from a dot-matrix printer—“it went halfway around the room”—and “hung like giant tapestries in the locker area so players could verify their results.”

The first ranking list included 186 players, and the man at the top of it was Ilie Nastase. Unlike Scanlon, who was a product of the all-business pro era, Nastase had begun his career in the looser, less-lucrative amateur days. He was honored to be the first No. 1, but this most artistic of players had reservations about the new, coldly meritocratic system of skill assessment. Nasty claimed that the atmosphere changed on tour once the rankings became a fact of life. He had idolized the 1960s Australian greats, men who had brought a macho, self-deprecating bonhomie to the locker room—camaraderie was the name of the game when there was no prize money to be had. Nastase said that hanging out with other players was different once “everyone had a number hanging over them.” Hierarchy, rather than camaraderie, would become the rule in tennis for the next generation. By 1981, John McEnroe would speak for his tour mates when he said, “Deep down, nobody gives a s--t about anybody else.”

The WTA joined the ranking revolution in 1975, and tweaks have been made to both systems over the years. They went from monthly to weekly, the players were given a chance to exclude their worst results, and, presumably, full-fledged computers were booted up. While the system began as a way to eliminate subjectivity from tournament entries, the rankings have taken on a life of their own. The ATP threw a gala party in Manhattan during this year's U.S. Open to celebrate their 40-year anniversary. Federer said “it’s what drives our game," while other players believe that the rankings have played a part in the sport's rapid evolution, quality-wise, since the 1970s. No player can afford to rest on his laurels when he has a number hanging over his head. One thing Scanlon forgot to say about the computer is that it is merciless.

On Monday, I wrote about how the Wimbledon boycott tracked the cultural trends of the times in 1973. The advent of the ATP computer rankings did as well. It’s hard to imagine now, but meritocracy was a relatively new phenomenon in many places in those days. As late as 1964, George W. Bush could enter Yale University as a legacy admission and spend his time there earning “gentleman’s Cs.” The year Bush graduated, 1968, was the first year that women were admitted; since then, entrance to elite schools has become more merit-based, and less connection-based. (Perhaps the legacy admissions that do still exist can be thought of as the equivalent of Grand Slam wild cards.) Tennis, a sport originally reserved for gentlemen, operated on a similarly paternalistic model until 1968, when professionals were finally admitted to its biggest tournaments. Five years later, with the computer rankings, the unshakable ladder of excellence, the men took a big step toward self-rule by making sure that the right players entered them.

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