Since bursting onto the scene in 2006, Novak Djokovic has never had any qualms about wanting be at the top of the tennis world.
“My lifetime goal is to be No. 1 in the world,” a 20-year-old Novak Djokovic told a group of reporters back in 2007. "That is my goal. So that's what I'm working for."
Two years ago he finally accomplished his dream. Staying there, however, is another question.
With Roger Federer fading and Andy Murray inconsistent, the battle for the 2013 year-end top spot is likely to come down be between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. The best rivalry in tennis will duke it out in the rankings as well as on the court.
Rafael Nadal has spent 102 weeks at No. 1, but hasn't been at the top spot since Djokovic took over nearly two years ago. The eight-time French Open champion is going to fight for it.
But to Djokovic, it never mattered that he had to play in an era against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Day in and day out, no matter the tournament and no matter the surface, he wanted and expected to come out on top.
It didn't happen right away, but 2011 was the year that Djokovic's hard work finally paid off.
After a phenomenal first six months, which included a 43-match winning streak and titles at the Australian Open, Miami, Indian Wells, Madrid and Rome, Novak Djokovic won his first Wimbledon and captured the illusive No. 1 ranking.
He was in the middle of one of the best tennis seasons of all time.
Since getting to No. 1, Djokovic has spent 86 weeks in the top spot. Roger Federer surpassed him briefly for 17 weeks in 2012 when he won Wimbledon, but Djokovic regained his position at the top after Federer withdrew from the Paris Masters last November. He's remained there ever since.
Currently, Djokovic has a big lead in the ATP rankings, which operate on a rolling 52-week scale. He has a 3,520 point lead over the No. 2 player in the world, Andy Murray. Considering Djokovic isn't defending another Grand Slam title this year, that feels like a pretty secure cushion.
However, the Emirates ATP Race to London standings give a different picture than the 52-week ATP rankings, because they only look at the points accumulated in 2013. At the end of the year, the ATP Race rankings will match the ATP rankings, but the race standings give a more accurate depiction of where players currently stand.
This is where the threat comes in. Rafael Nadal leads the calendar-year Emirates ATP Race to London standings with 7,000 points. Novak Djokovic in No. 2 in the calendar-year standings, with 5,030 points.
What’s phenomenal about this is that Nadal did not even play in the Australian Open. Despite the fact that Djokovic has played two Grand Slams to Nadal’s one, he still trails Nadal by 1,970 points in 2013.
The numbers get even more drastic when you look at how many points the two have to defend the rest of the year:
For the rest of 2013, Rafael Nadal only has 45 points to defend. (Novak Djokovic has 6530 points to defend)— Rafael Nadal Fans (@RafaelNadalFC) June 9, 2013
The fact that Rafael Nadal didn't play tennis at all after Wimbledon last year is going to be a huge factor moving forward. He can only gain points in the 52-week rankings, while Novak Djokovic is going to constantly be defending them.
For Djokovic to hold onto his top ranking, he's going to have to play his best tennis week in and week out, just like he set out to do at the beginning of his career.
The key for the Serb is going to be the Masters events, where he has drastically lost ground in 2013.
At this point in his career, Djokovic doesn't have trouble bringing his best tennis to the Grand Slams. But since 2011, his performance at the Masters Series, where he originally made a name for himself, has dropped off.
Outside of his phenomenal victory in Monte Carlo to kick off the clay season, Djokovic has lost before the finals in the four other Masters events this year. Two of his losses––to Tommy Haas in Miami and Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid––came to players outside the Top 10.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal has made it to the finals of all four Masters he's played this year, and won three of them. That creates a huge points differential that has more than made up for the fact that Nadal missed the Australian Open in January.
Still, there are four Masters and two Grand Slams left to be contested in 2013. The season is far from over. Nadal's run of nine straight finals is likely to come to an end as he moves off of clay––he is human after all––and there will be opportunity for Djokovic to gain ground.
If Nadal stays healthy, it is unlikely that Novak Djokovic will be able to end the year at No. 1 for the third year in a row. But nothing is impossible.
Seven-year-old Novak Djokovic dreamed of reaching No. 1. 26-year-old Novak Djokovic is going to have to put in the work to stay there.