Becoming World #1 is one of the greatest but most difficult achievements in tennis, perhaps bested only by winning Grand Slam titles. In fact, since the inception of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings system in 1973, a total of only 25 men have achieved the #1 ranking. Of those 25, Roger Federer has held the top spot for the longest reign (302 weeks), while Patrick Rafter has had the shortest reign as #1: one week in July of 1999.
While the sports world loves to celebrate the careers of these #1 players, the accomplishments of those who never made it to the pinnacle of the rankings are rarely highlighted. That’s understandable, but it’s still a shame since so many players who never became World #1 are outstanding athletes themselves.
With the goal of celebrating the careers of these “also greats”, we present the ten best male tennis players who never achieved the ATP’s #1 ranking. Only players who are no longer active on the ATP tour have been included, and they’ve been arranged according to their career winnings, which have been adjusted for inflation.
10. Manuel Orantes / Peak Rank: #2 / ATP Earnings: $6 Million
Despite Manuel Orantes being of average height, they called him “Manuelito” or “Little Manuel” for his boyish demeanor. By no means, however, can his accomplishments in the world of tennis from the late 60s to the early 80s be described as “little”. In fact, despite peaking “only” at #2 and winning “just” one Grand Slam singles title, he was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012.
Just one Slam and inducted into the Hall of Fame? The 1975 US Open probably had something to do with it. During the Spaniard’s semifinal against Guilermo Vilas, Manuel completed one of the greatest comebacks in tennis. At 26 years old, Orantes had dropped the first two sets of the best-of-five sets match and was down 0-5 in the fourth. In fact, fans had begun to rush from the stadium to the parking lot in order to beat the exiting traffic. But Manuel had other ideas: he turned the match around and won 4-6, 1-6, 6-2, 7-5, 6-4.
Then, in the final, no one gave Orantes a chance against Jimmy Connors, who was the best player in the world at that time. The score? An overwhelming 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 rout — in favor of Manuel.
9. Magnus Norman / Peak Rank: #2 / ATP Earnings: $6.4 Million
Sweden’s Magnus Norman would have probably accomplished more in his career had he not been hampered and forced into a premature retirement by hip and knee injuries. Nevertheless, his peak of #2 in the world in June of 2000 is a testament to Norman’s determination as he was never considered among the most talented players of his era. In fact, he never won a Grand Slam singles title and reached only one Slam final: the 2000 French Open. There, he was defeated in four sets by Gustavo Kuerten.
Today, Magnus is a successful tennis coach who is said to have engineered Stanislas Wawrinka’s shocking upset of Rafael Nadal during the 2014 Australian Open final.
8. Arthur Ashe / Peak Rank: #2 / ATP Earnings: $6.9 Million
Athur Ashe may have peaked only at #2 in the world, but many tennis pundits consider him to be among the best American tennis players of all time. In fact, Ashe was the first African-American player ever selected to the US Davis Cup team and is the only black man to ever win the singles titles at the US Open (1968), the Australian Open (1970), and Wimbledon (1975).
Unfortunately, in 1979 Arthur suffered a heart attack which surprised the tennis world because of Ashe’s high level of fitness. As a result he had to undergo a quadruple bypass operation and another heart operation four years later. Worse, five years after the second operation, Ashe was discovered to be HIV positive, his doctors believing that Arthur had contracted the virus from blood transfusions for his second operation.
After spending the rest of his life educating the public about AIDS, Ashe died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
7. Rod Laver / Peak Rank: #3 / ATP Earnings: $10 Million
Australian tennis player Rod Laver owns the record for the most singles titles won in the history of tennis (200), but surprisingly, he was never ranked #1 in the ATP rankings. That may be a little misleading, however, as Laver was World #1 for seven straight years from 1964 to 1970 and two years from 1961 to 1962, both periods coming before the creation of the ATP ranking system in 1973. In fact, Rod is the only tennis player to have achieved the calendar Grand Slam (winning all four majors in the same year) twice (1962, 1969), and is the only player to have won a Grand Slam in the Open era.
Today, the centre court at Melbourne Park, where the Australian Open is played, is named the “Rod Laver Arena”, and it’s often said that no GOAT (greatest of all time) discussion is ever complete without the mention of this Australian tennis legend.
6. Vitas Gerulaitis / Peak Rank: #3 / ATP Earnings: $10 Million
In 1980, Vitas Gerulaitis ended a run of sixteen consecutive defeats against Jimmy Connors. When he was asked how he had finally managed to beat his nemesis, the American famously replied, “Because nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis seventeen times in a row.”
That lighthearted response characterizes the easygoing attitude that Gerulaitis displayed throughout his personal life. He was known for partying hard — maybe too hard, in fact. But he was also very serious about his tennis. Vitas would get down to business come training time for upcoming seasons, and as a consequence of his hard work, he won the December Australian Open in 1977, his only Grand Slam singles title.
5. Àlex Corretja / Peak Rank: #2 / ATP Earnings: $15 Million
Àlex Corretja never won a Grand Slam singles title, but he did finish runner-up twice at the French Open (1998, 2001). The most important tournament he won in his career was the season-ending ATP Tour World Championship, which the Spaniard took in 1998. As a carry over of his year-ending success, Àlex reached his career-high singles ranking of #2 in February of 1999 and later helped Spain to its first-ever Davis Cup title in 2000.
After Corretja’s retirement in 2005, he coached Spain’s Davis Cup team in 2012 and 2013.
4. Michael Stich / Peak Rank: #2 / ATP Earnings: $21 Million
Germany’s Michael Stich is best remembered for winning Wimbledon in 1991. It was an especially impressive feat since he had to beat then World #1 Stefan Edberg in the semifinals and three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker in the the final en route to the title.
Aside from that stellar achievement, Stich also won other noteworthy titles, including the Men’s Doubles Wimbledon Championship (1992 with John McEnroe), and the Olympic Men’s Doubles gold medal (1992 with Boris Becker). Furthermore, Michael also won the 1993 yearend ATP World Tour Championship. In fact, in the 90s Stich was the only player to claim the title while remaining undefeated throughout the tournament.
3. Guillermo Vilas / Peak Rank: #2 / ATP Earnings: $21.4 Million
This one is a bit controversial.
In 1977, Guillermo Vilas won an amazing seven consecutive titles after Wimbledon: Kitzbühel, Washington, Louisville, South Orange, Columbus, the US Open, and Paris — all on clay. That amounted to a match-winning streak of 57 matches. All in all, the Argentinian won a record sixteen ATP singles titles that year.
Despite that amazing performance, Vilas was officially listed by the ATP to have peaked at #2 in the world that year, thus denying him the honor of ever achieving the top ranking in his career. Instead, Jimmy Connors, who won the Masters and six other titles in 1977, was named that season’s yearend World #1.
World Tennis, the authoritative tennis magazine at that time, disagreed with the rankings. They listed Vilas as 1997 yearend World #1 and Connors, #2. The ATP never commented on the switch-up by the magazine, but it is widely believed that the official rankings placed more weight on the tournaments that Connors won over those of Vilas.
Nevertheless, whether peaking at World #1 or #2 in his career, it can hardly be denied that Vilas’ four Grand Slam singles titles (1978 and 1979 Australian Open, 1977 French Open, and 1977 US Open) qualify him to be mentioned among the sport’s greatest names.
2. Michael Chang / Peak Rank: #2 / ATP Earnings: $29.4 Million
Michael Chang was only able to win one Grand Slam singles title throughout his career, but the manner in which he won it probably had a role in convincing voters to induct the Chinese-American into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2008. In fact, the drama during the 1989 French Open peaked not in the final, but during 15th seeded Chang’s fourth round encounter with then World #1 Ivan Lendl, the winner of the tournament during three of its previous five editions.
A 17-year-old Michael, inspired to do his best as a tribute to the Chinese Tiananmen Square protesters, provided considerable resistance against Lendl, but still lost the first two sets 4-6, 4-6. However, Chang battled to take the third and fourth 6-3, 6-3 despite suffering from terrible leg cramps during the fourth set. In the fifth set, to overcome his cramps, Michael hit moon balls into the air and ate bananas and drank water at every opportunity. Then, at 15-30 on his own serve, Chang attempted to get away with an unconventional serve:
That point seemed to seal the deal for Chang, who eventually won the match, 4–6, 4–6, 6–3, 6–3, 6–3, in 4 hours and 37 minutes. Michael would progress through the draw after the win, and ended up winning the final against Stefan Edberg to become the youngest male player ever to win a Grand Slam title.
1. Goran Ivanišević / Peak Rank: #2 / ATP Earnings: $29.6 Million
For a while, it looked like Goran Ivanišević would remain a three-time Wimbledon runner-up but never the champion. He had made the final of the Championships in 1992, 1994, and 1998, but lost each one, first to Andre Agassi, then twice to Pete Sampras.
By the summer of 2001, it looked certain that Goran would never win Wimbledon as his ranking had slipped to #125. In fact, his ranking was so low that he had to be awarded a wildcard to be able to play Wimbledon. Shockingly, Ivanišević reached the final, his first in three years. There, he defeated Patrick Rafter, 9-7 in the decider, to become the lowest-ranked player and the first wildcard entry to win Wimbledon.
Sure, Goran Ivanišević was never World #1, but after winning the most important tennis title in the world as the #125-ranked player, he’s likely to believe that rankings don’t really matter all that much.