Short history of world rankings
by Alessandro Albiero
( Grand Slam Record Book Vol.1 )
For a long time an official tennis ranking did not exist. Today it’s regarded as official the ATP computer-based ranking. It suffices to take the results of every professional player in the last twelve months and put them in the computer (giving points according to the rules): problem solved. It has worked this way since 1973. Before that, rankings were entrusted to influential experts, big names among tennis columnists.
First quasi-official world rankings popped up in 1913, signed by the famous English columnist Wallis Myers, who worked for The Daily Telegraph; he wrote down a top 10 ranking until 1938. Afterwards, this task was carried on by his Telegraph colleagues: John Olliff (1939-1951) and Lance Tingay (1952-1989). From 1968 up to 1973 rankings were also written down by the famous Boston Globe columnist Bud Collins.
According to the Official Encyclopedia of Tennis written down by the USLTA (U.S. federation), the following rankings are regarded as official: Myers’ (1914-1938), Sir Gordon Lowe’s (1939), Pierre Gillou’s (1946 and 1951), John Olliff’s (1947-1950), Lance Tingay’s (1952-1973). Collins’ are not regarded as official, even though many observers believe them to be among the most authoritatives. There are no rankings for the two world war years (1915-1918 and 1940-1945). By the way, it’s not correct to regard as “official” any ranking before 1973. We can only say that some of them are regarded as more reliable than others.
From 1968 up to 1982 some interesting rankings were also written down by the Italian columnist Rino Tommasi; they are much valued by experts, use different criteria from the computer’s ones, and include five hundred players.
Of course, we can’t forget that up to 1968 professionals were not counted in such rankings, as they could not attend Slams, Davis Cup and any other amateur tournaments (the “official” ones).
But who was the top player before 1913? Today’s tennis was born with the first Wimbledon in 1877, but no world ranking of any kind did exist in the first thirty-five years.
Karoly Mazak, Hungarian fan, basing his results on Wimbledon, as well as US Championship’s, Davis Cup’s and tens of other tournaments, also counting H2H and challenges met by competitors, having carefully researched old books and newspapers, and with the help from experts spread all over the world (among them Ray Bowers and Robert Geist), eventually managed to fill this gap and wrote down the most accurate and reliable world rankings since the beginning. Not an easy work, bearing in mind that few matches were then played between competitors of different nations.
The First number 1 in tennis history can only be Spencer Gore, who won the first Wimbledon tournament, the only one held that year. The following year the Irish Championships were born: they are regarded, given their participation and prestige, as being on the same level as Wimbledon, or even higher, at least until 1902.
This is why, in Mazak’s ranking for the year 1887, the Irish Championships’ winner, Ernest Renshaw, is ranked number 1 ahead of Wimbledon’s winner, Herbert Lawford. Ernest reached number 1 also because his twin Willie was injured; but Willie did strike back winning Wimbledon in 1889. He had already been the Wimbledon champion from 1881 up to 1886, and at the same time – six consecutive years – had also been the rankings’ number 1. This feat would again be accomplished by Bill Tilden (1920-1925) and in the Open Era only by Pete Sampras – but more than a century later.
Ernest Lewis was the best player in 1891, although he never won Wimbledon. Lewis is regarded as the greatest player in XIX century to never have won the London tournament, even though he was skilled enough to achieve victory by means of his offensive play.
Afterwards, Ernest Renshaw was back in 1892; then the high talented, Irish doctor Joshua Pim ruled for the following three years. In 1896 a steady player like Baddeley came before nine years of full dominance by the Doherty brothers (Reggie 1897-1900, Laurie 1902-1906).
Behind them, there were Americans like Wrenn, number 2 in 1897, and Whitman, number 2 in 1900; eventually Bill Larned became the first non-British player to reach number 1, at first in 1901, and then from 1908 to 1910.
The first non-British player to win Wimbledon and reach the top of the ranking was the Australian “wizard” Norman Brookes in 1907, after the Doherty brothers had retired.
Since then, only one other British player has ever reached the top of the ranking, the exception being: Fred Perry between 1934 and 1936.
New Zealander Wilding dominated from 1911 up to 1913 (he was Brookes’ partner in the Davis Cup, as Australia and New Zealand played together by the name of “Australasia”). In 1914 the “Californian comet” McLoughlin blew in.
Then came the war, a tragedy that swept away not only tennis but even a complete generation. When in 1919 international competitions started again, Wilding could not return: in 1915 he had died in the trenches near Ypres.
Another problem, likely unsolvable, concerns the rating of professional players. Even in 1934, for example, Fred Perry’s first place is challenged by many experts who instead favour Vines, who had turned professional the previous year. Such a situation continued and in fact got worse considering the increasing number of champions moving on to the “other” circuit – until the dawning of the Open Era.