1973: The ATP institutes computer rankings

by: Steve Tignor | March 26, 2015

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Putting Up the Ladder: When the ATP introduced rankings in 1973, players could definitively measure themselves against one another. (AP Photo)

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“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. We just read about how it, rather than money, was what was drove the ATP to walk out of Wimbledon in 1973. When the men banded together to protest their fellow player Niki Pilic’s suspension from the tournament, the British press made them out to be ungrateful and greedy. But what they wanted more than anything was, after decades 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 a commercial about the topic for ESPN:

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 came up with their own lists of who would be allowed to play the Grand Slams, and who would make up the country’s Davis Cup teams. 

The players were at the mercy of 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 doubles.

The tournaments themselves had their own favorites. As Stan Smith told ATP.com in 2013, “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. “Computer” is in quotes because, well, there was no computer.

Mike Estep, who ran the ranking system for much of the 1980s, told USA Today in 2013, “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 such a 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. 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 and team rosters, the rankings have taken on a life of their own. The ATP threw a gala party in Manhattan during the U.S. Open in 2013 to celebrate its 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 one can afford to rest on his or her laurels when they have numbers hanging over their heads. One thing Scanlon forgot to say about the computer is that it is also merciless.

With the advent of computer rankings, tennis joined the West’s fledgling meritocracy of that period, the same one that made entry into elite schools in the U.S. more about brains than family connections for the first time. A sport originally reserved for ladies and gentlemen, tennis had operated on a similarly paternalistic model until 1968, when professionals were finally admitted to its biggest tournaments. Five years later, with the computer rankings, that unshakable, unavoidable ladder of judgement, the men took a big step toward self-rule by making sure that the right players entered them.

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