Tennis used to rank like college football before the BCS.
Players were judged by the media and by so-called experts in the field. What is more, players were generally ranked only at the end of the year.
This is kind of like the Associated Press looking back over the year in 2002 and announcing that Ohio State, in its opinion, was the best team in college football.
Let us just admit that the old college system was a very arbitrary and imperfect means of ranking.
In tennis, with the rise of the ATP and the WTA, the rankings began to evolve into a system based on wins, weighted by the difficulty of the event.
For the men, such a system began in 1973. For the ladies, their ranking system began in 1975.
Rankings today are updated weekly based on tournament results. While the system still has its critics, it remains consistent and fair in most people’s estimation.
Prior to the Open Era, there were many great players who dominated for lengthy periods of time, like Aussies Rod Laver and Margaret Court or players like Bill Tilden and Helen Wills Moody from the United States.
But starting with the Open Era, we have a body of substantial evidence to determine the length and breadth of the following players’ periods of domination—15 men and women who seized control and held it for an extended period of time.
Agassi: 101 Weeks at No. 1, Including 52 and 30 Consecutive Weeks on Top.
Andre Agassi played professional tennis for 20 years.
That gave him an average of five weeks per year at the No. 1 ranking. He reached the No. 1 spot six separate times during his long career with an average of 16.8 weeks per trip to the top.
Agassi spent most of his career playing second to the great Pete Sampras. But, the man from Las Vegas resurrected his career and went on to play until age 36, becoming one of the few men who reached No. 1 after age 30.
Andre Agassi’s first stint at No. 1 lasted from April 10, 1995, through November 5, 1995—30 weeks.
His second major run came from September 13, 1999, through September 10, 2000—52 weeks. During that time, he won his second Australian Open title.
Agassi's last rise to No. 1 came in 2003 when he remained on top for 17 weeks in total.
Agassi became a staple of U.S. tennis, renowned and respected for his staying power and his intense competitive spirit.
Nadal: 102 Weeks at No. 1, Including 56 and 46 Consecutive Weeks at the Top.
Rafael Nadal, seven-time French Open champion, is still active and hopefully will have many years left to add to his No. 1 ranking totals.
He began his professional career in 2001 and has been playing for the past 11 years, giving him a 9.25 weeks-per-year average at No. 1.
So far, he has reached the No. 1 ranking twice in his career, which means an average of 51 weeks per trip to the top.
Nadal first rose to the No. 1 ranking on August 18, 2008, ending Roger Federer’s 237 weeks at No. 1.
Nadal held on to the ranking for 46 weeks—ending his first reign on July 5, 2009. During that period, Nadal won the 2009 Australian Open for the first and only time to date.
In 2010, Nadal again supplanted Federer to rise to No. 1 on June 7, 2010, holding onto the top spot until July 3, 2011—56 weeks total. During this period, Nadal won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the French Open.
Currently, Nadal is out of tennis, working hard to rehabilitate his knees in time for a return to action in 2013.
Borg: 109 Weeks at No. 1 Including 46 and 34 Consecutive Weeks on Top.
Bjorn Borg did not spend much time playing tennis—essentially only eight years, giving him an annual average of 13.6 weeks at No. 1.
He reached the No. 1 spot six times during his career, which gave him an 18.2 week average per trip to the top.
Borg began his periods of domination with wins at the French Open and Wimbledon, rising to No. 1 for one week in August of 1977.
His first substantial hold at the top, however, began July 9, 1979, extending through March 2, 1980—34 weeks in total just after winning Wimbledon and the French Open back-to-back in 1979.
His second iron grip on the No. 1 ranking began August 18, 1980, and ended on July 5, 1981, after winning his last major, the French Open in 1981.
Borg would bounce back to No. 1 for another two weeks before slipping away forever from tennis in 1982.
Borg was the first major player with movie star appeal. He brought fans to the game just as television coverage began to have an impact.
Henin: 117 Weeks at No. 1, Including 44 and 61 Consecutive Weeks at the Top
Justine Henin turned pro in 1999 and retired in 2008—nine years. But she came back for a year in 2010-11, essentially playing professional tennis for 10 years.
That gives her an average of 11.7 weeks per year ranked No. 1.
She reached the No. 1 spot four times during her career, giving her an average of 29.25 per trip to the top of the women's ranking.
The little Belgian finally grabbed the top spot for the first time on October 20, 2003—but she only stayed a week, as she fought over the No. 1 ranking with countrywoman Kim Clijsters.
When Henin took the No. 1 ranking the second time, however, she held it for 44 weeks—starting on November 10, 2003, and ending on September 12, 2004. During that period at the top, she won the Australian Open.
Her second period of domination began on March 19, 2007, and ended abruptly on May 18, 2008, when Henin announced her retirement from tennis after being on top for 61 consecutive weeks. During that period of time, she won the French Open and the U.S. Open.
Her attempted comeback in 2010 did not work out for her. Still, Henin goes down in history as a very stable, dominant player.
As a diminutive person, Henin proved that you could play and win this game with dedication, determination and the best backhand in the game.
Williams: 123 Weeks at No. 1, Including 57 Consecutive Weeks on Top.
Serena Williams is, of course, still playing tennis and still able to add to her current statistics concerning the No. 1 ranking.
At age 31, Williams has been playing tennis since 1995. Periodic illnesses and injuries have kept her out of tennis, but she has never missed an entire year.
So far, her average time at No. 1 is 7.25 weeks per year. To date, she has reached the No. 1 ranking on five separate occasions, giving her an average of 24.6 weeks per trip to the top.
Serena defies ranking even though she tends to dominate at majors. The youngest Williams sister does not play enough tennis to consistently reach the top ranking spot. In that regard, she remains an anomaly in the game.
However, she has held the No. 1 ranking 123 weeks, or almost two-and-a-half years.
Serena first climbed to No. 1 on July 8, 2002, holding onto the top spot for 57 weeks through August 10, 2003. During that time ranked at No. 1, Serena won the 2002 U.S. Open, the 2003 Wimbledon Championships and the 2003 Australian Open.
Serena also returned to No. 1 starting on November 2, 2009—holding it until October 10, 2010, or 49 weeks. During that time, she won the 2010 Australian Open as well as 2010 Wimbledon.
It will be interesting to see just where Serena ends up on this list once her career is over.
McEnroe: 170 Weeks at No. 1, Including 58 and 53 Consecutive Weeks at the Top
John McEnroe played professional tennis for 14 years giving him an average of 12 weeks per year at No. 1.
During his career he reached the No. 1 spot 14 times, which also yields an average of 12 weeks.
McEnroe first rose to the top spot in men’s tennis briefly in March of 1980.
His first real hold on the No. 1 ranking, however, began on August 3, 1981, extending through September 12, 1982—58 weeks. During that time he won the U.S. Open for the third consecutive time.
His second major run at the top began on August 13, 1984, ending on August 18, 1985—53 weeks in total. During this period McEnroe once again won the U.S. Open—his fourth U.S. Open title.
McEnroe would hold the No. 1 ranking for two more weeks in September of 1985, but never rise to the top spot again even though he would continue to play tennis for another seven years.
McEnroe's style of play and his intense competitive rivalry with his opponents Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl added color to a game many considered too bland to be a major sport.
When McEnroe played, you always got your money's worth.
Seles: 178 Weeks at No. 1, Including 64 and 91 Consecutive Weeks at the Top
Yugoslavia native Monica Seles played tennis for 14 years, although she was out of the game two-and-a-half years after being stabbed in 1993. Therefore, she ended with an average of 15.5 weeks per year ranked at No. 1.
She climbed to the No. 1 spot five times during her career, which gave her an average of 35.6 weeks per trip to the top.
Seles burst onto the world stage in 1991 when she quickly made a name for herself on the tennis court, supplanting German superstar Steffi Graf in the top spot on March 11, 1991.
Seles stayed put for 21 weeks enjoying her new-found fame, winning her second French Open title.
Seles’ first extended stay at No. 1, however, started September 9, 1991, lasting through June 6, 1993—91 weeks at the top. During her time on top, she won two U.S. Open titles, two Australian Open titles and one French Open championship.
Unfortunately, Seles was stabbed in the back during a tournament in Hamburg in 1993, which effectively stopped her brilliant career even though she would come back to tennis eventually.
She was replaced by Graf, who took over the No. 1 spot.
Seles retained the No. 1 ranking when she returned on August 15, 1995, and held her place until November 3, 1996, winning her fourth Australian Open title.
Seles had the power to dominate on court because of her fearless aggression. She changed the sport for the women who followed her.
Hingis: 209 Weeks at No. 1, Including 73 and 80 Consecutive Weeks at the Top
Martina Hingis from Switzerland played professional tennis for 13 years, but was absent for three years before returning to the game in 2006. She yielded an average of 20.9 weeks per year ranked No. 1.
She reached the top ranking five separate times during her career, giving her an average of 41.8 weeks per stay at No. 1.
On March 31, 1997, Hingis reached the top of the WTA ranking ladder. She liked it there, staying for 80 weeks until dismissed by Lindsay Davenport on October 12, 1998.
During that time, Hingis won three majors—1997 Wimbledon, the 1997 U.S. Open and the 1998 Australian Open.
Hingis would arrive and stay intermittently as No. 1 throughout 1999 and 2000. She began her second period of domination on May 22, 2000 running through October 14, 2001—73 weeks in all.
This time, Hingis was replaced by Jennifer Capriati. The Swiss star would never reach the top spot again after 2001.
Hingis was an intelligent player with deft touch, utilizing angles and placement to win points. She served as the transition from the baseline game to the new power game.
Once the power players established themselves, Hingis was no longer a significant factor in the women’s game.
Evert: 260 Weeks at No. 1, Including 76 and 113 Consecutive Weeks at the Top.
Chris Evert played tennis from 1972 through 1989—17 years, averaging 15.33 weeks per year ranked No. 1 throughout her career.
Evert reached the top ranking on nine separate occasions during her career, giving her an average of 28.9 weeks when she reached No. 1.
Evert was the first woman in the Open Era to be ranked No. 1 by the WTA.
Her first No. 1 ranking began on November 3, 1975, ending on April 25, 1976. It lasted 25 weeks in total before she was replaced by Evonne Goolagong Cawley for two weeks.
Evert resumed her place at the top of the women's game on May 10, 1976, holding the No. 1 ranking for 113 weeks. She was toppled on June 9, 1978, by Martina Navratilova as the rivalry between the two superstars began to shift the tennis landscape.
During her first long stretch at No. 1, Evert won two U.S. Open titles and one Wimbledon Championship.
Evert and Navratilova bounced the top spot back and forth between them until Evert climbed back on top to stay beginning November 18, 1980, until May 2, 1982—a total of 76 weeks. During that time, she won another Wimbledon title.
Evert would reach the No. 1 ranking for the last time in the Fall of 1985.
In all, she spent 260 weeks as the No. 1 ranked player in the world.
Evert's consistency and her impeccable precision gave respectability to the women's game as the Open Era began. That, plus her rivalry with Navratilova, made tennis fans of us all.
Connors: 268 Weeks at No. 1, Including 84 and 160 Consecutive Weeks on Top.
Jimmy Connors played tennis for a long time—24 years, giving him an average of 11.2 weeks per year ranked No. 1.
He bounced to the top spot nine times during his career, which gave him an average of 29.8 weeks each time he reached No. 1.
Connors lived through two significant periods of domination, with the first commencing on July 29, 1974, lasting until August 22, 1977.
Connor's top ranking lasted over three years—160 weeks, which is the second-longest consecutive week total for a man. Roger Federer’s 237 weeks remains the longest consecutive run as No. 1.
During that period of time, Connors won the U.S. Open in 1974 and in 1976. Earlier in 1974, Connors had won the Australian Open and Wimbledon, which helped him reach the No. 1 ranking initially.
Bjorn Borg bounced Connors off his perch for one week from August 23 to August 29.
Connor’s second coming began the next week, August 30, 1977, and lasted through April 8, 1979—another 84 weeks. During that period, Connors won his third U.S. Open in 1978.
Think how the record books would have changed if Borg had not taken the No.1 spot for that one week. Connors' run at No. 1 would have extended to 245 weeks—eight weeks past the current record of 237.
Such is the game of tennis.
Connors played tennis a very long time, well into his 30s. He remained a factor in the game throughout his career.
His feisty fighting spirit, and his often colorful displays of temper on court made him a favorite of United States tennis observers. Jimbo will always remain a fan favorite.
Lendl: 270 Weeks at No. 1, Including 80 and 157 Consecutive Weeks at the Top.
Ivan Lendl played professional tennis for 16 years, earning an average No. 1 ranking of 16.9 weeks per year.
He reached the top spot eight separate times during his career, which meant his average time per trip to No. 1 was 33.75 weeks.
Lendl enjoyed his first sojourn at No. 1 for 11 weeks in 1983.
He would reach the top spot six more times before seizing and holding it for 157 weeks starting on September 9, 1985—lasting through September 11, 1988—over three years.
During that period, Lendl won the U.S. Open in 1986 and 1987 as well as the French Open in 1986 and 1987—four majors in all. He would reach the finals of Wimbledon during those years, but could never win the title at the All England Club.
Mats Wilander took over the top spot after winning the U.S. Open in 1988.
Lendl’s next extended stay at the top began on January 30, 1989, extending through August 12, 1990—80 weeks. Lendl took over after winning the Australian Open in 1989 . He would win it again in 1990.
Later in 1990, Stefan Edberg overtook Lendl, who would never again rise to the top spot in men’s tennis again.
Many say that Lendl was the father of the modern baseline game, which would soon supplant the serve and volley game of McEnroe, and later, Sampras.
Lendl's fitness and attention to detail paid great dividends on the tennis court, as he dominated the game in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Sampras: 286 Weeks at No. 1, Including 82 and 102 Consecutive Weeks at the Top
Pete Sampras played professional tennis for 14 years for an average of 20.4 weeks per year ranked No. 1.
Throughout his career, Sampras reached No. 1 in men’s tennis 11 separate times, which gave him an average stay of 26 weeks per trip to the top spot.
Sampras rose to No. 1 for the first time in 1993, holding it for 19 weeks. His first period of major domination, however, began on September 13, 1993, lasting though April 9, 1995—82 weeks in total. He rose to No. 1 after winning the 1993 U.S. Open and continued by winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 1994.
Sampras was pushed aside by Andre Agassi for 30 weeks in 1995.
After reaching the top spot for the fifth time, Sampras held it from April 15, 1996 through March 29, 1998—102 weeks in all. During that reign, Sampras won the 1996 U.S. Open, the 1997 Australian Open and the 1997 Wimbledon.
Marcelo Rios nudged Sampras aside for four weeks before Sampras came back to the top spot again.
Sampras would hold the No. 1 ranking periodically for a few weeks at a time throughout 1998-99. He climbed to No. 1 for the last time from September through November of 2000—ending his career with 286 weeks in total ranked as world No. 1.
That remained the all-time record for men until Roger Federer broke it in 2012.
Sampras remains one of the best players ever to step onto a tennis court in many people's estimation. He was the last, and perhaps the best, of the serve and volley players in the history of the modern game.
Federer: 300 Weeks at No. 1, Including 237 and 48 Consecutive Weeks at the Top
Roger Federer is still playing tennis. So far, he has played 14 years, giving him an average of 21.4 weeks per year at No. 1. He has reached the No. 1 ranking three times throughout his career, which works out to an average of 100 weeks per stay at the top.
Once Federer earned his No. 1 ranking on February 2, 2004, he was unwilling to let it go—holding on to it for 237 consecutive weeks, over 4.5 years. That is the current record in tennis for men and women. Second is Steffi Graf with 186 consecutive weeks at No. 1.
Federer’s first period of domination lasted until Rafael Nadal defeated him at Wimbledon in 2008, with Federer relinquishing the top spot on August 17, 2008, to Nadal.
Federer took over the No. 1 ranking from Andy Roddick after winning his first Australian Open title in 2004. During that period of domination, Federer also won two more Australian Open titles, four Wimbledon titles and four U.S. Open titles—10 major titles in all.
Federer’s second streak began on July 9, 2009, running through July 6, 2010—48 weeks in total. The Swiss star took over after winning the French Open and Wimbledon in 2009. He would go on to win the Australian Open for the fourth time in 2010.
Federer held the top spot for the second time just short of one year, ceding the it to Nadal again in July of 2010.
Today, Federer is the current world No. 1 player for 15 weeks and counting—trying to end the year ranked in the top spot. Who knows how high the superb Swiss can rise?
Federer certainly has dominated the game throughout his career, holding back the inevitable rise of Nadal until 2008. Now the Swiss has to retool his game and his fighting spirit to do battle with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray as well as Nadal these days.
Navratilova: 332 Weeks at No. 1, Including 90 and 156 Consecutive Weeks at the Top
Prior to Steffi Graf arriving on the scene, Martina Navratilova was the most dominating figure in tennis history. She played professional tennis in singles for 19 years, compiling an average of 17.5 weeks at No. 1 throughout her career.
She rose to the No. 1 ranking nine times, giving her an average of 36.9 weeks per trip to the top.
Martina began her amazing tennis career by climbing to the No. 1 ranking on June 10, 1978—holding the top spot for 26 weeks. During that brief period, she won Wimbledon for the first time, defeating Chris Evert.
Her next run, however, came later beginning on September 10, 1979, and running through April 6, 1980—31 weeks in total. This time, Tracy Austin took over the No. 1 ranking, holding it for two weeks.
Navratilova’s most dominating period began June 14, 1982, extending through June 9, 1985 for 156 weeks or three years. During that period of time, Navratilova won three Wimbledon titles, two U.S. Open titles, one Australian Open title and one French Open title.
She was overtaken by Chris Evert on June 10.
Regaining the No. 1 ranking on November 25, 1985, Navratilova hung on until August 16, 1987—another 90 weeks. During that period, she won two Wimbledon titles plus one Australian Open and one U.S. Open title.
When Graf took over on August 17, Martina would never find her way back to the top spot again, as Graf began to dominate the game.
Navratilova is the epitome of professional longevity in tennis. Once she gave up singles, Navratilova continued to compete in tennis doubles into her 50s. She knows the game and promotes women's tennis whenever the opportunity arises.
Graf: 337 Weeks at No. 1, Including 186, 94 and 87 Consecutive Weeks at the Top
Steffi Graf dominated her foes from the beginning.
Her stellar career lasted 17 seasons, as she averaged 20 weeks at No. 1 per year.
She reached the No. 1 spot seven times, giving her an average of 48 weeks per each trip to the top.
Her first rise to No. 1 began August 17, 1987, ending on March 10, 1991, when feisty Monica Seles pushed her off the perch. Her run lasted 186 consecutive weeks or over 3.5 years—second only to Roger Federer’s 237-week domination.
During her initial run, Graf won a calendar year Grand Slam plus an Olympic gold medal, making her the only player in the history of tennis to win a Golden Slam.
In all, Graf won eight Grand Slam singles titles during her 186-week period of domination.
Graf’s second major run at No. 1 began June 7, 1993, extending through February 5, 1995—another 87 weeks at the top. This time Graf was toppled by Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who held the top spot two weeks before Graf pushed back.
During this period, Graf won three Grand Slam single titles.
Finally, beginning on June 12, 1995, and running through March 30, 1997, or 94 weeks, Graf was ranked No. 1 for the last time. Her last period of domination, however, lasted just shy of two years. During that period of time, Graf won five major titles in singles.
In all, Graf held the top spot 377 weeks—longer than any other player since 1968.
Graf played the game better, longer and was more dominating than anyone in the history of the Open Era.