On This Day: Connors rises to the top of the rankings

It was certainly ironic and arguably tragic that Jimmy Connors never joined the ATP. He’d turned pro in 1972, the same year the player’s association was formed—an organization founded on the principle that tennis players should enjoy both increased compensation and greater freedom.

The money and independence gained by the ATP greatly benefitted Connors. At a time when $100,000 was considered a superstar-like level of compensation, Connors won a healthy $90,000 as a rookie pro. The next year was even better, Connors’ generating $156,000 in on-court earnings—blossoming not just as a star, but a supernova. In those first two years, Connors won 17 singles tournaments and two times reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.

Connors was also aided by one of the ATP’s most enduring innovations. Prior to 1973, rankings were a hodge-podge. Various informed journalists determined the world’s top ten at the end of the year. Beyond that was anyone’s guess. National associations determined the rankings in each country, again a one-time process conducted after 12 months of results were generated. Though it was intuitively known, for example, that number 14 in Denmark was nowhere near as good as number 14 in Australia, what extensive data truly supported this? How could a true professional circuit organize itself to determine who was eligible to play which events and how to accurately seed the competitors?

“The ATP board set about devising an item that was so badly needed: a ranking list that would be accepted as fair and accurate by all the players,” wrote Richard Evans in The History of Tennis. “It is based entirely on fact.”

The ATP computer rankings made their debut on August 23, 1973. Ilie Nastase was the first number one, an ascent highlighted by triumphs at the ’72 US Open and ’73 French Open. Nastase held the top spot for 40 weeks, overtaken by ’73 US Open champion John Newcombe on June 3, 1974.


Connors in action at 1974 Wimbledon.

Connors in action at 1974 Wimbledon.

Connors during this entire time was gaining steam. He was ranked No. 10 at the beginning of the computer age, finished ’73 at three and by the start of Wimbledon in June ’74 had inched his way up to two. From the distance of time, Connors’ January Australian Open win was the major accomplishment. But in those years, the field at that event was quite shallow. The bigger reason for Connors’ ascent was that he won one tournament after another, racking up nine titles prior to Wimbledon.

Wimbledon was expected to be a showdown of sorts between rising stars Connors and Bjorn Borg versus the old guard of recent champions Stan Smith (’72) and Newcombe (’67, ’70-’71). But thanks to an even older star player, it didn’t quite go that way. Borg was upset in the third round. Thirty-nine-year-old Ken Rosewall swept aside Newcombe in the quarters and Smith in the semis. But he proved no match for Connors, who handily beat the durable Aussie, 6-1, 6-1, 6-4.

So it was that on this day in July, Connors ascended to the throne. It didn’t come during a tournament, but on an off-week; in those days the computer rankings were not automatically changed every seven days. That in mind, there was no grand celebration.

Connors put a further stranglehold on the number one ranking when he won five more tournaments after Wimbledon. That last-half run included a US Open title, that final too won over Rosewall.

Connors went on to become the computer’s first triple-digit leader—holding the top ranking for 160 straight weeks, a reign only broken by Borg for one week in the summer of ’77. Following that, Connors held the top spot for another 84 uninterrupted weeks. It would be another decade before a man was No. 1 for 100 consecutive weeks, Ivan Lendl’s most dominant stretch commencing in September ’85.

All told, Connors was ranked No. 1 for 268 weeks, fifth in the Open era behind Lendl, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic—the all-time leader.