Consistency is a difficult virtue, neither easy to acquire nor sustain. The climb is hard and the air is thick. It isn’t comfortable living on the high perch of tennis with a bull’s eye painted on your back. Since the launch of the rankings in 1973, only nine of the 25 men who have embellished their career with the top ranking have gone on to survive life at the peak for over 100 weeks.
Like the nine unknown men of the great emperor Ashoka, who held sway over a wealth of human knowledge, these are nine great champions that have reigned over the ATP World Tour for lengthy periods of time. Only, there was no need for a cloak of anonymity for these modern gladiators.
Rafael Nadal of Spain poses with the US Open Championship trophy next to Novak Djokovic of Serbia as he celebrates winning the men’s singles final on Day Fifteen of the 2013 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 9, 2013 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
The efforts of Novak Djokovic and his ilk in turning up week after week, performing at a high enough level to retain their grasp on the throne of tennis, is a study in committed effort and sustained brilliance that is hard to emulate. In a sport where every match is a test, 100 weeks or more as the world No.1 represents a remarkable feat of consistency built around skill, commitment and sheer hard work.
The man to first ascend the seat of power was the volatile Romanian Ilie Nastase, who won the US Open in 1972 and the French Open the following year as he rode through a period of rich harvest to claim the top rank in August 1973. Nastase, though, could only retain his arm on the chair for so long before relinquishing it after 40 weeks at the helm.
*Numbers in weeks spent as world No.1
Jimmy Connors became the first player to go past the 100 week mark during his five year reign that started in 1974 and extended into 1978. The ageless American, whose many feats of longevity remain untouched to this day, was the one who found this elite club of men with a sustained presence at the top of their game. When Connors discharged the honour of being No.1 for the last time in July 1983, he had completed 268 weeks at the peak.
Bjorn Borg, the sparkling Swede who took the game by storm with his understated brilliance, snatched the honour from Connors to establish an empire of his own. Except for a brief interlude with the tag in August 1977 till his final tryst at the top in August 1981, Borg completed a punctuated run of 109 weeks at the top rung of tennis.
The next to ascend the emperor’s court was the mercurial John McEnroe. Beginning with a three week stint in March 1980, McEnroe stepped on and off the pedestal, playing musical chairs with Borg, Connors and Ivan Lendl before eventually completing his 270th week at the top in September 1985. McEnroe’s brilliant touch enthralled and imprisoned his opponents in equal measure. The temperamental American, though, was a victim of his own sporadic sparks of transcendental brilliance as he flitted in and out of the shaky perch.
Lendl was struggling initially to close out a Grand Slam final, but one of the finest examples of consistent success in the game shuffled in and out of the hallowed space as he settled into his role as a multiple Grand Slam winner. Even as tennis prospered with the arrival of Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, Lendl established an iron grasp of the top ranking, holding sway for 270 weeks between his initial flirtations in February 1983 through August 1990.
While both Edberg (72 weeks) and Jim Courier (58 weeks) held the coveted ranking for long periods of time, the arrival of Pete Sampras meant that they were merely warming the seat for one of the most dominant players across eras. Sampras inherited the mantle from Courier in April 1993, and held the top rank for a record 286 weeks before relinquishing control in November 2000.
Around the same time as Sampras, there was Andre Agassi, who was blowing hot and cold as he dealt with the dichotomy of his enormous talent and the complexities that consumed his flamboyant lifestyle. The stylish athlete first turned No.1 in April 1995, and by the time he completed his 101st week as world No.1, Agassi had put his name firmly on the gilded walls of a hallowed corridor inhabited by the legends of the game.
But the era of prolific players did not so much as take a breather after the poignantly timed exit of Pete Sampras. Almost on the heels of his retirement, a young and aspiring Swiss took centre stage. Roger Federer ruled with almost balletic grace as he reigned supreme between February 2004 and August 2008, obliterating the record book with a range of performances that were variously described as being cathartic and spiritually uplifting.
A combination of photographs created on July 8, 2012 shows Roger Federer of Switzerland holding up his 7 Wimbledon trophies. Swiss great Roger Federer won his seventh Wimbledon men’s singles title at the Wimbledon Championships tennis tournament in Wimbledon, southwest London on July 8, 2012. Federer’s 7 Wimbledon victories are: Centre: Wimbledon 2012, left column top to bottom: 2004, 2003, 2005, and right column top to bottom: 2009, 2006 and 2007. (AFP/GettyImages)
The last time the 17 time Grand Slam champion was number one was in November last year, by which time he became the first man ever to hold the position for more than 300 weeks. But arguably, even the greatest player of all time, had his fair share of nemeses. Rafael Nadal tormented Federer with enormous spin and power to usurp the top ranking by inflicting probably the most painful loss of Federer’s illustrious career.
Nadal disrobed the emperor by defeating Federer for the first time on grass in 2008, snatching the treasured Wimbledon crown from the grasping hands of the Swiss. The injury prone Spaniard had two stints at the top, accounting for a combined 102 weeks as the world No. 1. Even as Federer surrendered to the left handed brutality of Nadal, Novak Djokovic plotted his moves carefully to counter the high bounce and loopy spin of the Majorcan.
A gluten free diet and an intense physical training regimen enabled the Serbian to break the duopoly of Federer and Nadal. As he successfully completes his 100th week as world number one, Djokovic is dealing with a severe threat to his crown. The Spaniard is within sniffing distance, and could retake the top ranking if he manages to reach the finals of the Beijing Open, where Djokovic is the defending champion.
The recent domination of these three athletes has meant that it will be awhile before tennis can expect to see another champion who could sustain a climb and live there long enough to experience a 100 week stay at the very top of the game. Meanwhile, Djokovic can briefly relish his elite existence before plotting his nervy campaign at Beijing, to try and hold off the rampant Spanish bull tapping at his cracking heels.