How many times have you looked at the little number next to a tennis player’s name and wondered what it meant? Not what the ranking was, per se, but how it got there?

black and white picture of tennis player on court

Ilie Nastase, the first World Number 1

In the beginning of the modern tennis era, rankings were determined by a collection of journalists, national tennis federations, and other experts on the sport. The method was informal and subjective. Of course one country’s ruling tennis body would want their star to be number one! In early days of the open era, countries were allowed to nominate four of their players to compete in the major tournaments. So, a new model of the ATP rankings was formulated. It gave the sport much needed rankings objectivity, even though some athletes didn’t immediately accept it.

The current ranking system isn’t as clandestine as you may think, even though the official explanation is a bit dense. You can read about the Emirates ATP Rankings over at their official site, but here are a few details to keep in mind:

  • The ATP rankings uses a points system, so there is no “who beat whom” situation
  • Point totals are taken from the Grand Slams, the World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments, the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals
  • Also added to the score are the best six results for a player’s performance in all ATP World Tour 500, ATP World Tour 250, ATP Challenger Tour and Futures tournaments

Following along? Great! Now here’s what lowers a ranking:

  • Every time a player is not part of the main draw in Grand Slam or mandatory ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament, their ranking increases by 1.
  • If the player does make the main draw, the tournament result will count towards the ranking (whether or not he actually plays).

Making the main draw in a Grand Slam or World Tour Masters 1000 is difficult, and the longer a player stays out of contention, the further back they’ll slip.