By Damian Kust
February 2, 2004 – Federer wins the Australian Open and claims World No. 1
Roger Federer took over the World No. 1 spot for the very first time, winning the 2004 Australian Open (his second Grand Slam title). Andy Roddick was leading the table before the tournament, but lost to Marat Safin in the quarterfinals. Federer defeated the eventual world No. 2 Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final four and went on to clinch the top spot in the rankings for the very first time, something he would hold on to for the next 237 weeks.
2004-2008 – 237 consecutive weeks of ranking dominance
Before the U.S. Open in 2004, Roddick came a few hundred points away from taking the #1 ranking back on a few occasions. However, most of them took place during the clay-court season, where the American never had that much say at the biggest tournaments (no finals above the 250 level, only one fourth-round appearance at Roland Garros). After Roddick dropped his U.S. Open points, Federer’s lead became very sizable.
Rafael Nadal first entered the World No. 2 spot in July 2005 and remained there all the way until he took the top spot for the first time in 2008. The rivalry between him and Federer might have been lopsided in his favor in terms of the head-to-head, but the rankings didn’t really reflect that early on. By the end of 2006/early 2007, Federer had practically twice as many ranking points as the Spaniard.
Federer’s lead dropped below 1000 points after he lost in the 2008 Australian Open semifinals to Novak Djokovic. Nadal couldn’t really make up the difference during the clay-court season, but he repeated his dominance in that part of the calendar and was perfectly positioned to battle Federer for the top spot.
August 18, 2008 – Nadal goes on a crazy win streak, clinches the top spot for the first time
Nadal defeated Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, a 4 hour, 48 minute thriller that is widely regarded as one of the best matches in the history of the sport. This was a part of a 32-match win streak (the longest one of the Spaniard’s career). It eventually got him to the World No. 1 spot for the very first time, a position he would hold onto until July 2009.
July 6, 2009 – Federer wins the Channel Slam to regain the top spot
2009 was the year of a huge ATP ranking reform with the points effectively doubled, leading to much bigger differences between the players. Nadal started the season with about a 3000 points lead over Federer and Djokovic, but couldn’t defend his French Open and Wimbledon points – he lost in the fourth round in Paris to Robin Soderling and dropped out of the latter due to a recurring knee injury. Federer won both events and swiftly regained the No. 1 spot, maintaining it for almost a year.
June 7, 2010 – Nadal back to winning ways in Paris, back at the top of the rankings as well
Just a month earlier Federer had held a 4000 points lead over his biggest rivals but one clay-court season changed it all. The Swiss failed to defend his Madrid Masters title and, more importantly, the French Open, while Nadal had an unbelievable run of 22 wins and 0 losses on the dirt, destroying the competition at Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, and Paris. Was this the best version of Nadal ever? Quite possibly. The Spaniard only dropped two sets in that whole run. Federer remained close until Nadal followed it up with a second Wimbledon title, adding all 2000 points to his ranking after missing the Championships the year before.
July 4, 2011 – Djokovic wins Wimbledon, leads the ATP Rankings for the first time
2011 was the true breakout season of Novak Djokovic, the moment when we can say that the Serb entered his prime. He began the year with a 43-match winning streak and while it was over by the time we reached Wimbledon (broken by Federer at Roland-Garros), his first title at London gave him the top spot. With Nadal unable to gain any points during the clay-court season (but defending almost everything), Djokovic left Paris just 45 points behind the Spaniard. Regardless of the result of their final at Wimbledon, the Serbian would have still clinched the World No. 1. The victory only made it sweeter and for the first time in over seven years, someone not named Federer or Nadal held the top spot.
July 9, 2012 – Federer’s 17th Grand Slam title puts him back in the driver’s seat
Wimbledon was the center of action again with the semifinal between Federer and Djokovic proving to be decisive (although the Swiss still had to lock up the no. 1 spot by defeating Murray in the finals). A seventh trophy at London allowed Federer to edge his rival by just 75 points at the beginning of July. It all led to a pretty intense battle for who would finish the year as the World No. 1.
November 5, 2012 – Federer pulls out of Paris, Djokovic claims the year-end No. 1
It remained very close until the end but with Federer withdrawing from the BNP Paribas Masters and not defending his title (citing the need to rest up before the ATP World Tour Finals), Djokovic took back the top spot and was mathematically safe to clinch the year-end No. 1, regardless of what happened at the O2 Arena (where he won anyway, defeating Federer in a great final).
October 7, 2013 – Nadal dominates the 2013 season
Injuries forced Nadal to start the year in February and while his first tournament ended in a loss to Horacio Zeballos (albeit in the final), the Spaniard was just unbeatable for most of the season. By the time he regained the top spot in the ATP Rankings, Nadal had a win/loss record of 65/4 with two of these losses coming to Djokovic. Ironically, the tournament that got him the No. 1 ranking back was the China Open, where he reached the final and lost it to the Serbian. All he needed was the runner-up points, though. At the beginning of February that year, he trailed Djokovic by about 7600 points.
July 7, 2014 – Djokovic begins his reign of 118 consecutive weeks
Just like on a number of previous occasions, Wimbledon proved to be the key to the World No. 1 spot. Djokovic found himself just 170 points behind Nadal following the French Open and the stakes were high at SW19. With the Spaniard suffering a shock defeat to then-world No. 144 Nick Kyrgios in the fourth round, Djokovic still needed to win the title, but he delivered on that with a five-set thriller over Federer.
2014-2016 – Peak Djokovic?
This question has been discussed plenty of times and there are arguments both in favor and against, but some things cannot be disproven – this is the period where Djokovic held all four Slams at the same time. More to the topic of this piece, it’s also the moment when the lead over his competitors in the rankings got to astronomical levels. In November 2015, he mirrored Federer’s 2006/2007 achievement of having double the points of anyone else. In June 2016, he would reach 16,950 ranking points, which remains the all-time record to this day and will be extremely tough to crack. Earlier that year, in April, he held 16,540 of them to then-world No. 2 Andy Murray’s 7,815.
The numbers were incredible. The lead seemed too huge for anyone else to even have a shot at taking back the World No. 1 position by the end of the year, but a loss to Sam Querrey at the 2016 Wimbledon was the moment everything cracked for Djokovic. Be it motivation issues after dominating the tour for a long time, be it injury struggles, it wasn’t quite the same player we had followed in the previous two seasons.
November 7, 2016 – Murray’s best season, Djokovic falls off
That doesn’t take away from how good Murray was in the 2016 campaign. With a 78-9 win/loss record for the year, the Brit was making his move and it suddenly turned out that he might still have enough time to catch Djokovic before the end of the season. Murray gave himself a huge workload following the U.S. Open that year, earning 25 consecutive wins in less than two months (Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, Paris, ATP World Tour Finals). Poetically, it all came down to one last tie between Murray and Djokovic with the Brit triumphing 6-3 6-4 in the final match of the season, claiming the No. 1 spot for the first time.
August 21, 2017 – Nadal’s resurgence, Fedal take all the Slams again
Both the dominators of 2016 struggled with injuries the year after, cutting their seasons short following Wimbledon. It coincided with a resurgence of Nadal and Federer and while the Swiss came up with the neo-backhand and suddenly dominated the rivalry that gave him so many issues in the past (he went 4-0 against Nadal that year), he played a lighter schedule and didn’t quite manage to reach the No. 1 ranking. The one to pick up the pieces after Murray was Nadal, who took two Slams and aside from completely dominating the clay season again, produced excellent results on hard courts all-year-round.
2018 – Nadal and Federer going back-and-forth
Federer got his shot at the top spot for the first time in six years at Rotterdam, right after defending his Australian Open title. The Swiss needed to reach the semifinals and defeated Robin Haase in the last eight to become the oldest World No. 1 ever (his last week came at 36 years and 10 months of age). Between February and June that year, Federer and Nadal swapped positions six times and seemed on track to finish the year as the top two players again.
November 7, 2018 – Djokovic comes back with a bang
Despite being at just six wins and six losses at the beginning of May, Novak Djokovic entered his terminator mode again and claimed both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that summer, with the 10-8 in the fifth classic against Nadal in London perhaps the one to have the biggest implications for the future. Both Djokovic and the Spaniard were in contention for the world No. 1 coming into the Paris Masters, but Nadal was forced out of this event (and the ATP Finals) due to an abdominal injury. The Serb defeated Joao Sousa in his opening match in France and regained the top spot again.
November 4, 2019 – Nadal and Djokovic share the slams, The Spaniard gets year-end No. 1
The next season gave us another thrilling battle for the year-end No. 1, one that probably wouldn’t be possible without Nadal claiming the title at the U.S. Open, forever ending any claims that he’s not an all-time great on hard courts. The Spaniard was back to the top spot after the Paris Masters with Djokovic requiring a strong ATP Finals campaign to get it back. However, the Serbian was eliminated in a group stage (after an iconic winner-takes-all scenario vs Federer) and Nadal secured the leading position for 13 weeks, despite not getting out of the round-robin stage himself.
February 3, 2020 – Djokovic wins 8th Australian Open title, back to the top spot for 86 consecutive weeks
The Australian Open has always been Djokovic’s favorite hunting ground and it was his eighth Melbourne title that got him back to world No. 1 for the last time (for now). With Nadal eliminated by Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals, Djokovic needed to win the whole event to regain this honor, and he went on to fend off the Austrian in five sets to earn his fifth stint as the world No. 1.
2020 – 2022 – Frozen rankings, a non-Big Four No. 2 for the first time in 16 years
As the pandemic halted professional tennis events for over five months, the ATP decided to freeze the rankings for the period without any action. For 22 weeks, no points were added or subtracted from anyone’s tally, leading to a couple of months that were basically an interregnum. Djokovic had a small lead over Nadal before the restart, but almost instantly extended it with the Spaniard taking a longer break until Rome.
No one came too close to Djokovic until 2022 as he dominated the field again, coming one match away from a Calendar Grand Slam. It’s worth pointing out that in March 2021, Daniil Medvedev became the World No. 2 as the first non-Big Four player since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005. Perhaps that’s the stat that illustrates best how these four legends dominated the sport.
February 28, 2022 – The end of an era?
Novak Djokovic lost 2000 points by not being able to defend his Australian Open title, which ultimately led to a very tight battle between him and the runner-up of that event, Daniil Medvedev. With the Russian playing in Acapulco and the Serbian in Dubai, Medvedev needed to win the title to clinch the leader spot regardless of his rival’s results. Both players were still in their respective tournaments on Thursday, but Djokovic’s loss to Jiří Veselý in the quarterfinals meant that Medvedev was already safe to clinch the World No. 1 for the first time. 18 years and 26 days after Federer kick-started the Big Four dominance over the top-ranking position.
Will this be the last time we see Djokovic, Federer, Murray, or Nadal at World No. 1? Probably not, although the chances mostly lie with the Serbian and the Spaniard. Djokovic’s unvaccinated status might lead to him missing plenty of big events over the next few months, which is going to make this quest a lot harder. Nadal is off to a wonderful start this year, currently on a 15-0 win/loss record and has a lead of over 1000 points on Medvedev in the ATP Race.
In the case of Federer and Murray, while you can never write off a true champion, they’re much more capable (if health allows) of producing one big run than a series of excellent results that can take you to World No. 1. At this stage of their careers, the chances are practically non-existent.
Current Big Four weeks at World No. 1:
361 – Djokovic
310 – Federer
209 – Nadal
41 – Murray
Year-end No. 1s:
7 – Djokovic
5 – Federer, Nadal
1 – Murray
ATP Rankings on the 28th of February 2022
1. Medvedev 8,615
2. Djokovic 8,465
4. Nadal 6,515
27. Federer 1,665
84. Murray 778
ATP Race on the 28th of February 2022
1. Nadal 2,750
2. Medvedev 1,675
39. Murray 305
109. Djokovic 90
– Federer 0