Understanding the Men's Singles Tennis Ranking System

Updated on October 20, 2016
beagrie profile image

John is a fervent writer, avid gamer, and guitar lover. He earns his sandwiches fixing automatic transmissions.

Tennis has grown to be one of the most popular sports in the world, and it is certainly among the top non-team sports. With the ATP World Tour being the pinnacle of high profile tennis, millions watch ATP tournaments every week. Despite this, it can be a little tricky to for outsiders to understand what on Earth is going on when it comes to the rankings, and in this hub we're going to try and dispel that confusion.

With only the top 8 ranked players competing, the ATP World Tour Finals is the last tournament of the year.
With only the top 8 ranked players competing, the ATP World Tour Finals is the last tournament of the year. | Source

The Broad Strokes

The first thing to understand about the rankings is that, while players earn points for competing in tournaments, and while there is a tennis “season” of sorts, the ATP ranking tables bear no resemblance that of football or other more popular sports.

Firstly, "tennis season" is a bit misleading as the first tournament of the season is in early January, and the last is in mid November, so while there is a month or so break, the tennis calendar is, practically speaking, all year round. The second significant difference between the ATP rankings and, say, the English Premier League (football/soccer), is that points earned from a particular tournament carry over to the next year. In fact any points won by a tennis player remain theirs until the same time the following year, where they must “defend” them. This is the part that tends to trip people up.

Djokovic and Murray

Born just days apart, Djokovic and Murray have much in common. From their age, their style of play, and their ascendance within the tennis world. Djokovic's success has put him in many discussions regarding the greatest player of all time, and while Murray's own greatness is often overshadowed by Djokovic's, his own exploits include a number of historic accomplishments.

An Example

Here’s an example. In the 2016 Shanghai Masters, Novak Djokovic was the defending champion, meaning he entered the tournament defending the maximum amount of points; 1,000. The best Djokovic could hope for was to win the tournament again and maintain the same number of points. World number 2 Andy Murray, on the other hand, was knocked out of the previous year’s tournament in the semi finals, meaning that he only picked up 360 points. In 2016, however, the roles were reversed and Djokovic was knocked out in the semi finals while Andy Murray went on to win the tournament. On the face of it, Djokovic won 360 points and Murray won 1,000 points, but because they were each defending points from the previous year, it actually means that Djokovic lost 640 points while Murray gained 640.

And this, broadly speaking, is how the ATP ranking system works.

Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have lead the ATP tour with consistent #1 and #2 rankings throughout 2016.
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have lead the ATP tour with consistent #1 and #2 rankings throughout 2016. | Source

The Tournaments

"Big Four" Dominance

The "Big Four" of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray have dominated tennis during the start of the century. Between 2004 and 2016 only 7 out of a possible 52 grand slams have been won by a player not part of the Big Four, and only 3 of those 7 did not feature a Big Four player in the final. During this period the Big Four also claimed 3 out of 4 Olympic gold medals, 10 out of 12 World Tour Finals, and 95 of the 117 Masters 1000 titles.

There are a number of different category of tournament in the ATP World Tour, with each being worth a different amount of ranking points. Some of the tournaments are self-explanatory; the 250 Series, 500 Series, and Masters 1000 grant the winner 250, 500, and 1,000 ranking points respectively. There are also the Grand Slam events which, if you’re not a tennis fan, will likely be the only tournaments you’re aware of, and they grant the winner a whopping 2,000 points.

It is not only the winner of a tournament that is awarded points, however. Points are granted to a player for simply being in the tournament, whether they got there through direct acceptance, qualifying, or as a wild card. The amount of points granted to a player increases the farther they progress into the tournament, so a player reaching the quarter finals will claim more ranking points than a player who was knocked out in the second round. Here is a complete breakdown of the points distribution among the ATP tournament types.

ATP Points Distribution as of 2009

Type of Tournament
Winner
Finalist
Semi Finalist
Quarter Finalist
Round of 16
Round of 32
Round of 64
Round of 128
Qualifying
Grand Slam
2000
1200
720
360
180
90
45
10
25
ATP World Tour Finals
+500
+400
200 for each win
 
 
 
 
 
 
Masters 1000
1000
600
360
180
90
45
10 (25)
(10)
25 (16)
500 Series
500
300
180
90
45
(20)
 
 
20 (10)
250 Series
250
150
90
45
20
(5)
 
 
12 (5)
ATP Challenger Tour Finals
+50
+30
15 for each win
 
 
 
 
 
 
Challenger 125,000 +H
125
75
45
25
10
 
 
 
5
Challenger 125,000
110
65
40
20
9
 
 
 
5
Challenger 100,000
100
60
35
18
8
 
 
 
5
Challenger 75,000
90
55
33
17
8
 
 
 
5
Challenger 50,000
80
48
29
15
7
 
 
 
3
Challenger 35,000 +H
80
48
29
15
6
 
 
 
3
Futures 15,000 +H
35
20
10
4
1
 
 
 
 
Futures 15,000
27
15
8
3
1
 
 
 
 
Futures 10,000 +H
27
15
8
3
1
 
 
 
 
Futures 10,000
18
10
6
2
1
 
 
 
 
Points shown in brackets indicate alternative scoring depending on tournament size. Masters 1000 qualifying points change to 16 if the draw is larger 56, 500 series changes to 10 if the draw is larger than 32, and 250 series changes to 5 if the draw

The hard and fast rule here is that the more prestigious the tournament, the more ranking points (and prize money) a player gets for competing in it.

The odd man out in this points system is the ATP World Tour Finals, which takes place at the end of the year between the top eight players in the ranking table. In the World Tour Finals the players are split into two groups of four where they play each player in their group in a round robin format. Points are only awarded for victories at this stage, thus it is possible for a player to enter the finals and not gain a single ranking point.

Once the round robin stage is complete, the top two players in a group progress to the semi finals, where they will play the top two players from the other group. The winners of these semi finals go on to compete in the final, with the winner being granted 1,250 ranking points.

Wimbledon is one of four Grand Slam tournaments that are the highest scoring in terms of ranking points.
Wimbledon is one of four Grand Slam tournaments that are the highest scoring in terms of ranking points. | Source

The Finer Details

Who is the greatest men's tennis player of the 21st century?

See results

Being high in the rankings is not simply a matter of racking up as many tournaments as possible, however. It’s is only the eighteen best results that count towards the official end of year ranking. There are further restrictions placed on players who finished the previous year ranked in the top thirty. For these players it is mandatory that their eighteen tournaments include the four grand slams and at least eight of the nine masters events.

Of the remaining six tournaments, four must be ATP 500 events, and two must be from ATP 250 events. This means that, should a player compete in all nine masters tournaments (worth 1,000 points to the winner) they will only be able to use eight of those results towards their ranking. Allowances are made for players who miss mandatory tournaments through injury, such as protected rankings. Similarly, there are penalties given to players who miss tournaments, such as “0-pointers” which, as the name suggests, assigns zero points to one of a player's counted tournaments, essentially removing one tournament from their potential ranking total.

At the end of the year, the top eight players in the rankings go on to compete in the ATP World Tour Finals. As a reward for their success in being amongst the top eight players in the world, they are allowed to have the World Tour Finals count as a nineteenth tournament in their final ranking placement. This allows for end-of-year excitement as the battle to finish the year as the world number one can come right down to the wire.

Davis Cup matches do not count towards ATP rankings, and other events—such as the Olympics—differ from event to event. For example, Andy Murray was awarded 750 points for winning gold in the men’s singles at the London 2012 Olympics, however four years later in the 2016 Rio Olympics Murray received no points for repeating the feat.

So there you have it. Next time somebody asks you how the men's tennis ranking system works, you'll be able to explain it to them in detail... and watch as their eyes glaze over.

Nobody said tennis was supposed to be easy!

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 John Bullock

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      • profile image

        Axel 

        12 months ago

        In this Article you say, that the 18 tournaments for the top 30 that they earn points for are the 4 Grand Slams, 8/9 Master 1000 and 4 Masters 500 + 2 Masters 250, but Sasha Zverev is getting points from 3 Masters 250 that he won. Could it be that there is a maximum am,ount of 4 Masters 500 within the last 6 tournaments instead of the exact number of 4?

      • profile image

        Vignesh 

        14 months ago

        What a lovely article, so it sounds like Dominic Theim made it into the semi finals of French open this year but will earn 0 points for that feat? he was a semi finalist last year too.

      • beagrie profile imageAUTHOR

        John Bullock 

        19 months ago from Yorkshire, England

        Hi Wayne, thanks for the kind comments. The ranking system has, broadly speaking, been the same since 1990. The number of tournaments that count towards the year end ranking changed from 14 to 18 in 2000.

        Other than that, the points for each tournament has changed from time to time (Grand Slam's used to be 1,000 points), and the names of tournament levels have changed (ATP 500 used to be ATP International Series Gold, for example) but the system itself is the same.

        Prior to 1990 it gets a bit messy as they used an averaging system.

      • profile image

        Wayne Grove 

        19 months ago

        John, Very nice articles. So are the points distribution the same from 2009 to 2016?

        I'm trying to find the ATP points distribution for each year back to 1990. Any idea where I can find them?

        Also, I'd like the same for the WTA.

        Thank you,

        Wayne grovewa@lemoyne.edu

      • beagrie profile imageAUTHOR

        John Bullock 

        21 months ago from Yorkshire, England

        Hi Neal, good question. For some reason the points for the World Tour Finals drop out of the rankings after the end of the Paris Masters. If the points had stayed in place until the completion of the finals (as they do for regular tournaments), Djokovic would still have been nearly 900 points ahead of Murray going into the finals, but he would have had to defend his 1,500 points from last year. Because those points had already dropped out of the rankings, he went into the finals 405 points *behind* Murray and all the points were to play for.

        As you can see, the end result is the same. Murray still takes the number 1 spot by matching or bettering Djokovic's result, the only difference is Murray started the tournament as #1 whereas, had this been a regular tournament, he would have started #2.

      • profile image

        Neal 

        21 months ago

        If that's all ther is to the rankings how come comentators were saying that at the ATP finals Murry had to at least match Djokovic's result to stay No.1. Djokovic won the ATP finals lats year so the best he could do by winning in again 2016 was keep the same number of points. Surely Murray just had to equal or better his points from the 2015 ATP finals?

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