While listing down sports with major global appeal, tennis, invariably, features in the top bracket.
Tennis’ popularity in India, too, has grown by leaps and bounds in the past three decades with the likes of 1996 Olympic medallist Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and women’s ace Sania Mirza achieving world No. 1 ranking in doubles at some point during this period.
Rankings may be considered the ultimate representation of how good a player/doubles pair is on the court and their form at the time.
Additionally, rankings determine qualification for any official tournament as well as player seedings. These in turn have a big impact on the draws for the respective events.
But how exactly are tennis rankings determined or is the process any different for men’s and women’s tennis players? Here’s an overview to answer these questions.
Tennis Rankings: History
Though the modern version of organised tennis traces its origins to the mid-1800s, there was no formalised ranking system in place for a long time.
From the 1950s, several popular British newspapers started issuing their own rankings. Among these, legendary tennis journalist Lance Tingay’s annual list of top 10 tennis players was held as the authority.
With the formation of Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) – the world governing body for men’s tennis - in 1972, formal computerised tennis rankings were put in place for the first time in order to streamline tournament entry criteria.
The first-ever men’s singles rankings were published on August 23, 1973. Romania’s Ilie Năstase was the first official ATP men’s singles world No. 1. Almost three years later, on March 1, 1976, the first men’s doubles tennis rankings were published.
With Billie Jean King setting up the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) – the world governing body in women’s tennis – in 1973, the women’s game followed suit and adopted a similar formula.
As things stand, ATP Rankings grade men’s singles and doubles players while WTA Rankings cater to women’s singles and doubles players. There are no formalised rankings for mixed doubles.
In the initial days, the core of the ranking system was based on averaging all the players’ results. From 1990, it was changed to a ‘best of’ system, which forms the base of the ranking methodology we know today.
Both ATP and WTA follow a similar format, with minor tweaks setting them apart.
ATP Rankings – men’s singles and doubles tennis rankings
ATP Rankings are based on the points earned by the players in official ATP-certified men’s singles or doubles events over the preceding 52-week time frame.
However, this doesn’t mean that someone playing more tournaments will be at an advantage. There is a cap on the number of tournaments which get counted towards rankings.
The number was originally 14 events but was increased to 18 in 2000. From 2021 onwards, 19 events will be counted for the rankings.
So, even if a player participates in 21 tournaments in the past 52 weeks, only their best 19 results achieved during the time frame gets counted in the rankings, not more. Hence, the system is referred to as ‘best of’.
In an ideal scenario, a player/pair (especially top 30 ranked ones) is expected to score their ranking points from the four Grand Slams, eight mandatory ATP Masters 1000 events and seven ‘Best Other’ results from the ATP Cup, ATP Tour 500, 250, ATP Challenger Tour or ITF WTT men’s events.
However, for every Grand Slam or mandatory ATP Tour Masters 1000 tournament a player is not in the main draw owing to valid reasons (either not qualified or injured), the number of results from other eligible tournaments within the 52-week period that count towards rankings is increased by one.
For example, if a player misses one of the Grand Slams or eight-mandatory ATP Masters 1000 events, the seven ‘Best Other’ results that count towards their ranking goes up to eight to ensure the total number is 19.
Towards the end of the year, the ATP Finals are played with the top eight ranked singles players and doubles pairs preceding the tournament. For qualified players, the ATP Finals is considered as a bonus 20th tournament and the points earned counts in their ranking.
Qualifying for any tournament earns the player a base number of points and it can only increase depending on how far he advances.
However, each tournament is graded according to its prestige, history and level of participation, and consequently carries varying number of points.
Breakdown of the ATP Ranking Grand Slam points
Grand Slams: The four Grand Slams (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open) are the highest graded tournaments in the ATP tennis calendar. Here's the Grand Slam points system:
ATP Finals: If a player/pair, who qualified for the ATP Finals, wins the tournament undefeated, they can earn a maximum of 1500 points (200 for each of three round-robin matches, 400 for winning the semi-finals and 500 for winning the final).
Rest earn points according to the matches won.
ATP Masters 1000: There are a total of nine ATP Masters 1000 tournaments in a year – Indian Wells, Miami Open, Madrid Open, Italian Open, Canadian Open, Cincinnati Masters, Shanghai Masters, Paris Masters and Monte-Carlo Masters.
For any player/pair, especially in the top 30 rankings, who qualify for these Masters 1000 events, participation in all barring the Monte Carlo Masters is mandatory. Exceptions are made in case of special circumstances like injuries or personal issues.
If there are fewer participants, players get 10 points for playing in the Round-of-64 instead of 25.
The next level features the ATP Tour 500 and the ATP Tour 250 tournaments.
Following these, we have the ATP Challenger 125, 110, 100, 90, 80, 50 tournaments followed by various levels of lower-ranked International Tennis Federation (ITF) events, with descending number of points on offer.
Points can also be accumulated from matches in the ATP Cup – a country-wise team-based tennis competition which started in 2020.
WTA Rankings – women’s singles and doubles
The calculation mechanism for WTA Rankings for women’s tennis, including the 52-week rolling window, is similar to the ATP one, except for the cap on the number of tournaments.
A player’s WTA ranking is determined by her best results at a maximum of 16 tournaments for singles and 11 for doubles. These must include points from the four Grand Slams and four mandatory WTA 1000 tournaments (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Beijing), wherever possible.
Barring these eight, ‘Best Other’ results from other WTA-approved events get counted. Like ATP, if someone doesn’t qualify or has to sit out one of the Grand Slams or four mandatory WTA 1000 events due to valid reasons, it gets covered by another ‘Best Other’ result.
Like the ATP Finals, the WTA Finals can be a bonus tournament for whoever qualifies. However, unlike the ATP Finals, where ATP Rankings determine qualification, the WTA Finals qualifiers list is based on a different leaderboard maintained specifically for the tournament.
In order to appear on the WTA rankings, players must earn ranking points in at least three tournaments or score at least 10 singles or doubles ranking points.
The WTA ranking points distribution is also slightly different from how ATP operates.
Breakdown of the WTA Ranking Grand Slam points
Grand Slams: While the winner of a Grand Slam gets 2000 points - the same as ATP – the distribution changes from the runners-up, who gets 1300 WTA ranking points as compared to 1200 in ATP.
WTA Finals: Like the ATP Finals, an undefeated winner can earn a maximum of 1500 points. A finalist, meanwhile, can get up to 1080 points.
WTA 1000 (Beijing, Indian Wells, Madrid, Miami): Earlier called the WTA Premier Mandatory Tournaments, these four were rebranded to WTA 1000 in 2021 to make the nomenclature in line with ATP events.
These four are mandatory for anyone qualified and able to play.
For doubles, Round-of-32 earns 10 points.
WTA 1000 (Cincinnati, Doha/Dubai, Rome, Montreal/Toronto, Wuhan): Though categorised under WTA 1000 after the 2021 rebranding, these five are not mandatory and have slightly lesser points on offer than the name would suggest.
These were known as WTA Premier 5 events till 2020.
Barring these, there are the WTA 500 (previously WTA Premier), WTA 250 (previously WTA International), WTA 125 (previously WTA $125k) and various ITF tournaments where players can score WTA ranking points.
Tennis rankings for the Olympics
ATP men’s singles ranking points used to be on offer at the Olympics from 2000 to 2012. Women’s singles players, too, could score WTA ranking points at the Summer Games from 2004 to 2012.
However, it was stopped from the 2016 Rio Games.
In the last edition at London 2012, the gold medallist in men’s singles earned 750 ATP ranking points while the women’s singles gold medallist was allotted 685 WTA ranking points.
However, both ATP and WTA Rankings still play a role in qualification to the Olympics.