Tennis rankings: Who will end the year as world number one?
As the 2023 season draws to a close, the men’s and women’s year-end world number one spots remain up for grabs in the tennis rankings.
Novak Djokovic – winner of a record 24 grand slams – leads the way from Carlos Alcaraz on the ATP Tour, while Aryna Sabalenka recently deposed Iga Swiatek at the top of the WTA rankings.
We have analysed each of the potential number ones and looked back at the greatest top-ranked players in the history of the sport.
Who will finish 2023 top of the tennis rankings?
Djokovic has continued to defy his advancing years by winning three out of four grand slams in 2023, taking his overall total to 24.
The 36-year-old has won 46 of his 51 matches (90 per cent), the highest success rate of any player on the ATP or WTA Tour.
However, in Spain’s Alcaraz, the Serbian finally appears to face a serious threat to his dominance. Aged just 20, Alcaraz defeated Djokovic in an epic Wimbledon final in one of his tour-leading 63 wins so far this year.
Despite holding a significant advantage of 2,240 ranking points in the race to be the year-end number one, Djokovic is defending a massive 2,100 points in his final two tournaments of 2023 – the Paris Masters and the ATP Finals in Turin – while Alcaraz is defending a mere 180.
On the women’s side, Australian Open champion Sabalenka reached number one for the first time in September, ending three-time major winner Swiatek’s 75-week reign at the top.
The top two are the only WTA players to have won more than 80 per cent of their matches in 2023, with the Pole leading the way on 85 per cent.
Although there are just 630 points between them and 1,500 up for grabs in Cancun’s season-ending WTA Finals, Swiatek faces an uphill battle to reclaim top spot as she will be defending 750 points as a losing semi-finalist in 2022.
Who holds the record for most year-end number one finishes?
If he can hold off Alcaraz, Djokovic will equal Steffi Graf’s all-time record of eight year-end finishes at number one in the tennis rankings.
Graf was ranked first at the end of every year between 1987 and 1990, and 1993 and 1996, with only Monica Seles managing to disrupt the German’s dominance by finishing as number one in 1991 and 1992.
Meanwhile, Djokovic first achieved the year-end top ranking in 2011, before going on to repeat the feat in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2020 and 2021.
The Serbian is currently tied with Martina Navratilova as a seven-time year-end number one, one ahead of Pete Sampras who was ranked top at the end of a record six consecutive years between 1993 and 1998.
Fellow modern-day greats Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have all finished at number one on five separate occasions, the same number as Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert who dominated the rankings in the 1970s.
Who is the greatest year-end number one?
For all he has achieved in the game, Djokovic is yet to make the list of the top 10 most dominant seasons by a number one in the Open era.
Navratilova holds that distinction having won a barely believable 86 out of 87 matches on the WTA Tour in 1983, with her only defeat having come against Kathy Horvath in the fourth round of the French Open.
The Czech-American won 16 titles in total that year, including Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the US Open.
Graf almost matched her great rival by winning 86 out of 88 matches and 14 titles in 1989, with her two losses having been inflicted by Gabriela Sabatini and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the finals of the Amelia Island Championships and the French Open respectively.
Such was Graf and Navratilova’s brilliance in their primes, they collectively account for eight of the 10 greatest seasons by year-end number ones.
John McEnroe and Connors are the only men to make the list, with their 82-3 and 94-4 seasons in 1984 and 1974 respectively.
Federer enjoyed the most dominant year among the ‘Big Three’, having won 81 of his 85 matches in 2005. Djokovic peaked in 2015 with 82 wins out of 88, two years after Nadal went 75-7 in 2013.
Who are the oldest and youngest year-end tennis world number ones?
Aged 36, Djokovic can break his own record as the oldest year-end number one by finishing 2023 at the top of the tennis rankings.
The Serbian was 34 years and 224 days old at the end of 2021 – the last time he ended a season as the world number one.
Serena Williams is the oldest women’s year-end number one, with the 23-time grand slam champion having led the way at the age of 34 years and 95 days in 2015.
In contrast, Alcaraz became the first teenage year-end number one in ATP Tour history in 2022 but three women’s players achieved the feat at a younger age.
Martina Hingis finished 1997 at number one having recently turned 17, while Seles and Graf repeated the feat at the age of 18 in 1991 and 1987 respectively.
Does it matter who finishes the year as number one?
Unsurprisingly, players that finish the year as world number one tend to do well in the following season.
In fact, only three of the 20 men’s and women’s year-end number one since 2013 have failed to win a grand slam in the subsequent campaign.
Despite topping the rankings at the end of 2016, Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber endured disappointing years in 2017, with Murray suffering a career-threatening hip injury and Kerber winning only 29 of her 53 WTA matches.
Ash Barty was also unable to win a grand slam in 2020 after topping the tennis rankings in 2019, although Wimbledon was cancelled that year as the tour was affected by coronavirus restrictions.
Djokovic – meanwhile – has twice won three grand slams in the 12 months after finishing a year as world number one.
He won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in 2015 as the reigning year-end number one, before coming within one win of lifting all four majors in 2021, when he lost to Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final.
Which year saw the greatest battle to be ranked number one?
The battle for the ATP number one ranking in 2023 will go down as one of the most thrilling in history, with the top spot having flip-flopped between Djokovic and Alcaraz on eight separate occasions since January.
Alcaraz started the year as number one before Djokovic took over after winning the Australian Open. The 20-year-old returned to the summit briefly in March and again in May, while the Serbian reigned in April.
Djokovic beat Alcaraz on the way to winning the French Open and reclaiming the number one ranking in June, before Alcaraz turned the tables by upsetting his older rival in the Wimbledon final in July.
The year’s third meeting between the two came in the final of the Cincinnati Masters – it proved to be another epic encounter, with Djokovic winning in nearly four hours after saving a match point. He went on to lift the US Open title and regain the number one spot in September.
Only once in the history of the game has the number one ranking changed hands more often in a single year. That was in 1983, when there were 10 changes as McEnroe, Connors and Lendl fought it out for supremacy.
McEnroe started and ended the year as number one, while Lendl reached the summit for the first time in his career and Connors the last.
The record for number one changes on the WTA Tour stands at seven. That was first set in 2002 when Serena Williams beat Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and her sister Venus to top spot. It was then equalled in 2017 – a year in which Simona Halep ended as number one after Kerber, Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova and Williams had previously ascended to the summit.