The worst number one in tennis: A case study

Last year, Andy Murray’s ascension to World No. 1 took shape in the months following US Open. Until US Open, the gap between Novak and Andy was so wide that it seemed unthinkable that he might soon reach the pinnacle of the rankings.

But then as US Open ended, Novak took his foot off the pedal and Andy sensed his chance. He rode hard and fast, played out of his skin and captured 4 titles on the trot – Beijing, Shanghai, Paris (all three Masters 1000 events) and Vienna (250 event).

However, Andy’s superlative performance was not the only factor behind his ascension to World No. 1; Novak’s failure to defend points in the second half of the season contributed equally to it.

In the current 2017 season, however, Andy’s form has taken a nose dive since he won a title in Dubai. In 5 tournaments after Dubai, he has reached past QFs only once – at an ATP 500 event in Barcelona. 4 of those losses have been quite embarrassing though:

  • Fognini (#29) in Rome in straight sets
  • Coric (#59) in Madrid in straight sets
  • Ramos-Vinolas (#24) in Monte Carlo in 3 sets
  • Vasek Pospisil (#129) in Indian Wells in straight sets

Novak is getting better with every tournament but Andy’s results continue to paint a sorry tale, so much so that danger looms over his throne.

Is Andy the Worst No. 1 in Tennis History?

We all talk about the best players, they achieved X record, and they passed Y player who held it before them. Every coin has two sides, every rose has its thorn. So, today, let’s take a look at the dark side.

No 5: Patrick Rafter

Pat Rafter was World No. 1, for only one week. When it comes to overall performance of World No. 1, Rafter had a pretty decent record. He won US Open twice, once in ‘97 and then defended his title in ‘98.

He would frequently lose to players ranked several places below him. Out of 25 finals, he won only 11 titles. Apart from his 2 Slams and 2 Masters Series titles, he won only 7 other tournaments. He reached only two finals on Clay.

While his solid serve and volley style has won him much of the accolade, it also restricted Pat Rafter’s records largely to faster surfaces.

No 4: Yevgeny Kafelnikov

Veteran tennis fans – and I say that with utmost respect – almost always keep squabbling over who was the worse No. 1 in tennis — Kafelnikov or Marcelo Rios. But Kafelnikov leaves Rios far behind with his 2 Grand Slam Singles titles, 4 Grand Slam Doubles titles, and a Singles Gold Medal at 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Yevgeny also holds a unique distinction of winning the doubles and singles titles at the same Grand Slam – the ‘96 French Open.

His World No. 1 ranking came after 6 straight first round losses, and lasted only 6 weeks. Another major reason why he stars in this list – He never won a Masters Series title despite reaching 5 such Finals.

No 3: Andy Roddick

After he won Canada and Cincinnati Masters in 2003 followed by his first Grand Slam at the US Open, Andy was naturally touted to be the next great hope for American Tennis since Pete Sampras.

A lot of fans have argued that Andy’s game was too one-dimensional and that a player ranked no. 1 should be able to play well at all surfaces. Andy did have 5 career titles on Clay, but overall he had a career win % of less than 65% on Clay (his weakest!). His French Open record provides no hope. He never even reached QFs in Paris and only once reached the 4th round.

He frequently crossed the 150 mph mark on his serve. Roddick may forever be defined by his serve — as a Super Server, who was lucky enough to win a Grand Slam title.   

No 2: Marcelo Rios

This guy could single-handedly give competition to the Wozniackis, and Jankovics of WTA. Rios is the only World No. 1 on ATP without a single Grand Slam title.

His solid performances in the first half of 1998 were enough to take him to No. 1 ranking — which held on for 6 weeks. He even reached the 1998 Australian Open Finals where he lost to Czech Petr Korda. And though he did win few Masters titles, he went past the QFs of Grand Slams only once.

On other surfaces, Rios had a reasonable 65% win percentage including all his matches on Hard and Grass courts. Rios is at No. 2 in this list because of his personal life.

If you have a look at Rios’ Wikipedia page, it is littered with several public controversies. He has had three wives, and a public break-up with his second wife. In short, Rios was a talented flake who had too many distractions in his personal life, to focus on his play.

No 1: Carlos Moya

Carlos was No 1 for just two weeks — in March 1999. He was a quintessential slow surface player, in fact part of the reason he’s on this list is because he was such a one-dimensional player. He won 6 hard court titles out of sixteen finals on the surface.

Grass? Carlos Moya is one of those players whose Grass Court record will never receive any credit. Not because he lost a lot of close finals – because he never reached any finals – let alone win a title. Even his best appearance at Wimbledon was a 4th round loss.

Many may argue that Moya and Roddick were pretty similar, only single surface players. But that hypothesis doesn’t take into account Andy’s 5 titles on Clay.

Moya, on the other hand, barely won half of his matches on Hard and Grass courts combined. Moya was a single surface player, but could never fulfil his potential on any other surface besides Clay.

Author’s Opinion

World No 1 is big responsibility; that position has its own distinctive aura. People look up to you; you are expected to dominate. At this position you are footing the bill of expectations of billions of tennis fans around the globe, it’s not just about you anymore.

The difference between best players in the world and being a champion — is how they respond to being World No. 1.

If the whole world looks up to you, would you stand up and inspire?

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