The year-ending championships in the professional men’s circuit feature eight of the best players of the season who compete against each other to win the highest ranked tournament in men’s tennis after the majors. Ever since its inception in 1970, six former players and one active player have won the tournament without being ranked at the numero uno spot in the ATP rankings. Here is a brief description of how these players lifted what is considered to be one of the most prestigious trophies in men’s tennis.
When the Open Era started in 1968, the clash between the amateurs and pros were brought together on the same page, resulting in a broader battlefield. One of the most successful players of the early Open Era was Guillermo Vilas. In 1974, Vilas made his first strides towards laying hands on big trophies by winning the year-end championships. The Argentine won the event on his debut and did so without losing a match in the entire tournament. In the round robin stage he was grouped alongwith Bjorn Borg, John Newcombe and Onny Parun. In the semis, Vilas defeated Raul Ramirez in four sets. The man from Buenos Aires was up against defending champion Ilie Nastase in the finals. Vilas won the first two sets but Nastase won the next two and forced a decider. The Argentine eventually got the better of the Romanian, winning the match 7-6 6-2 3-6 3-6 6-4. Vilas would reach the year-ending championships on seven more instances but never won another title at the event.
Vilas won seven titles that season and finished as the No.5 player in the rankings. It was the first season where he broke into the Top 10. Vilas would be a regular member of the Top 10 till 1982. The Argentine would go on to win 62 career titles which included four grand slams. Considered as one of the greatest players to play on clay, Vilas recorded his best season in 1977 where he won 130 of the 145 matches he played that season.
Despite such a stellar career, Vilas was never ranked the No.1 officially by the ATP. This was primarily due to the fact that ranking systems back then calculated the average of the player’s results. He was ranked as high as No.2 in the ATP rankings in 1975, a position he held for 83 weeks. However, some publications like World Tennis, Agence France-Presse and Livre D’or Du Tennis 1977 rated him as the year-ending No.1 player for the 1977 season.
In 2014, Argentine journalist Eduardo Puppo and Romanian mathematician Marian Ciulpan went through the tennis records of the years 1973-78 and submitted a detailed report of 1200 pages stating as to why Vilas should be ranked as the No.1 player for five weeks in 1975 and two weeks in 1976. The ATP went through the report but eventually dismissed it with the reason being that any change in the rankings now could affect the previous draws as a change in ranking would mean a change in seeding which could ultimately mean players would have faced different opponents. The ATP ranked Vilas’ nemesis Bjorn Borg as the No.1 player for 1977.
Manuel Orantes was one of the most influential tennis players in the 1970s and 1980s. The Spaniard won his lone grand slam title in 1975 where he defeated Jimmy Connors in the finals of the US Open. A runner-up at the French Open, Orantes won 36 titles in his career, one of which was the year-ending championships in 1976. For the fourth consecutive year, Orantes qualified for the tour finals. The Spaniard was grouped with Wojtek Fibak, Eddie Dibbs and Roscoe Tanner. In the round robin stage, Orantes lost only one match which was against Fibak. In the semis, he defeated Harold Solomon in straight sets. In the other semifinal, Fibak defeated Vilas 6-2 6-2 5-7 3-6 8-6 to set up a clash against Orantes. Orantes had lost in straight sets against Fibak in the round robin stage but in the final it was the Spaniard who was the triumphant player as he defeated the Pole 5-7 6-2 0-6 7-6 6-1. The win helped the southpaw to finish as No.4 in the rankings. The highest rank reached by Vilas was in 1973, when he was instilled as the No.2 player in the first ever computer-based rankings of the ATP.
Germany’s Michael Stich was one of the leading tennis players in the early 90s.Just three years after turning pro in 1988, Stich reached his maiden slam final at Wimbledon where he defeated defending champion Stefan Edberg to win his lone grand slam title. That year, Stich made it to the tour finals but failed to get past the group stage as he lost all his matches in the round robin stage. Stich had such variety in his tennis that he made it to the Top 10 in the rankings in both singles and doubles. In 1993, Stich won the Hopman Cup and the Davis Cup for Germany. However, the German’s highlight of the year was winning the year-ending championships. It was only the second time Stich had qualified for the tour finals. In stark contrast to his performance that he displayed on his debut at the tour finals, Stich won every match in the round robin stage en route his title win. In the finals, he defeated top seed Pete Sampras 7-6 2-6 7-6 6-2 to win the second biggest title of his career. The win helped Stich rise to World No.2 which was thirteen spots above his ranking that he was seated at, at the start of the season. Stich won a total of six titles in 1993 and his best result at the slam was reaching the semis of the Australian Open. The former German No.1 would go on to finish as the runner-up at the French Open and US Open before hanging up his boots in 1997.
In 1998, four of the eight players who qualified for the year-ending championships were Spaniards. One of them was Alex Corretja who had reached the finals of Roland Garros that year. Seeded fifth, Corretja was grouped alongside Marcelo Rios, Tim Henman and compatriot Albert Costa. Corretja made it to the semis losing his lone match against Henman who too made it to the semis. In the semis, Corretja upset top seed Pete Sampras by saving three match points and hence made it to his maiden finals at the year-ending championships. Henman was defeated in the semifinals by Carlos Moya and hence setup a title clash with his Davis Cup teammate Corretja. Down two sets, Corretja made an excellent comeback by winning the match 3-6 3-6 7-5 6-3 7-5 and hence remaining unbeaten throughout the tournament. The win also made Corretja the first ever player to win the tour finals without having won a grand slam in his entire career. The Spaniard finished the year ranked No.3. The following year, Corretja reached a career high ranking of No.2. Unfortunately, by the end of the season, Corretja dropped outside the Top 20. The Spaniard came back strongly in 2000, as he was a part of the Spanish Davis Cup winning team and also a bronze medalist in doubles at the Olympics. He made it to the Masters Cup yet again, but lost two of his three round robin matches and thus failed to reach the semis. He finished the year ranked No.8. In 2001, Corretja reached the finals of the Roland Garros yet again but lost to Gustavo Kuerten in four sets. Corretja was ranked No.16 by the end of the season and four years later, he retired from professional tennis.
In 2003, David Nalbandian reached the semis of the US Open and qualified for the year-ending championships. Seeded eighth, the Argentine was placed in a highly competitive group consisting of Roger Federer, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andre Agassi – each of whom had won a slam that year. Nalbandian failed to make it to the semis, winning only one match in the round robin stage which was against Juan Carlos Ferrero. In the beginning of 2005, Nalbandian was ranked No.9 in the world. Despite failing to reach the semis of any of the majors, he qualified for the year-end championships. In the round robin stage, he won two of his three matches and made it to the semis for the first time at the tour finals. The only defeat he faced in the round robin stage was against Roger Federer. In the semis, Nalbandian defeated Nikolay Davydenko 6-0 7-5. In the finals, he was up against Roger Federer. Federer began strongly, winning the opening two sets in tiebreaks. However, Nalbandian refused to deter and came back from behind to win the match 6-7 6-7 6-2 6-1 7-6. Nalbandian ended the season ranked No.6. In 2006, Nalbandian became the first Argentine to reach at least the semis in each of the slams. In March 2006, he reached a career high ranking of No.3 in the world. He made it to the Masters Cup yet again that year. Despite winning only one of his three round robin matches, Nalbandian made it to the semis. James Blake defeated the Argentine in the semis in straight sets. Nalbandian finished the season within the Top 10. The three-time Davis Cup finalist retired from professional tennis in 2013.
Nikolay Davydenko reached the peak of his career in 2006 when he got his career high ranking of No.3 in the world. A two-time semi-finalist at both the Roland Garros and the US Open, Davydenko qualified for the tour finals each year from 2005 till 2009. In 2008, he reached his first finals at the year-ending championships but lost to Novak Djokovic in straight sets. The Russian began his 2009 season ranked No.5 in the world. It was an injury plagued season for Davydenko where he was forced to withdraw from the Australian Open and failed to reach the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open. Despite that, Davydenko qualified for the tour finals. In a rematch of the previous year’s finale match, the Russian lost his first round robin match against Djokovic. But after that defeat, Davydenko defeated Rafa Nadal and Robin Soderling in order to progress to the semis. In the semis, he defeated Roger Federer in his thirteenth attempt against the Swiss to reach the finals of the ATP Finals for the second straight year. In the finals he faced Juan Martin Del Potro, who had defeated Robin Soderling in the semis. Davydenko defeated Del Potro 6-3 6-4 to win the biggest title of his career. Davydenko retired from professional tennis in 2014.
Among the active players, 2017 ATP Finals Champion Grigor Dimitrov is the only player to have won the event without reaching the No.1 ranking. He became the second player since Alex Corretja in 1998 to win the event on debut. Dimitrov peaked to No.3 in the world following his title win at the year-ending championships. The Bulgarian won 49 matches in 2017 but followed it with only 27 match wins in 2018 which made it his worst season in terms of match wins since 2009. Currently ranked No.19, Dimitrov has a herculean task to achieve to make it out of this list.