Novak Djokovic Needs Win at US Open to Reassert Status as World's Best Player
Based on the most objective criteria we have at our disposal, Novak Djokovic is the world's best tennis player.
With 10,980 points, he leads the world tennis rankings. The convoluted formula assesses him as being over 2,000 points better than Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. His points total is more than double that of Roger Federer, who at No. 7 is at his worst spot in over a decade.
I'll get back to you when I receive my PhD to tell you what any of that just meant.
For all I know, it could mean that Novak Djokovic is our overlord and we all have to learn Serbian by New Year's Day or expect deportation to Canada.
I'm being facetious (you wouldn't have to deport me to Canada, after all), but the world tennis (and golf, for that matter) rankings remain one of the more curious things in sports. Fans, media and talking heads on television cite them with such fervor that they've become near-religious representations of reality.
But are those rankings really representative? Not so much.
If you looked at the 2013 tennis season, it's quite clear the world tennis rankings vary wildly from what we have, you know, actually seen on a tennis court.
In simpler terms, it's impossible to justify calling Novak Djokovic the best player of the 2013 tennis season. Using any criteria except that one.
The 26-year-old Serb has only three wins during the 2013 ATP season. None of them has come in the past four months, and only one has come since the year's second month. While it's certainly not an embarrassment to win three championships on the world's best circuit, that total pales in comparison to unquestionably the most dominant force of 2013.
Nadal came into the 2013 U.S. Open having won nine tournaments. That's already a career-high for one of the 10 best players in the sport's history. He's lost three times all season long. The only notable blemishes on his resume are a first-round ouster at Wimbledon and that he wasn't healthy enough to play at the Australian.
Remember, Nadal is doing this despite his career being in jeopardy at this time a year ago due to lingering knee problems. I think we can give him a pass, no?
One could just as easily argue that Murray has been better in 2013. Murray has won four times while participating in fewer tournaments, and Djokovic has only won one percent more of his matches (85 percent compared to 84) than the Wimbledon champion.
Again, the only straight-faced argument anyone can make in Djoker's favor is that he's been healthy. Murray, like Nadal, had to miss a Grand Slam with injury.
But if health carries the most weight in your rankings criteria, perhaps it's time to go back and make a few tweaks.
There is, as we continue barreling toward the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open, only one way Djokovic can justify his standing as the world's best player.
He needs to win at Flushing Meadows.
Nadal's nine wins and Murray's four are, if my kindergarten skills are recollected correctly, greater than Djokovic's three. But there's one place where each of the world's three best are equal—in major championships this season. Djokovic won his third straight Australian title, Nadal his eighth French Open in the past nine years and Murray the first Wimbledon for a Brit since they were calling movies "the talkies."
Now is it fair to judge an entire tennis season on the results of four tournaments? Of course not...well, actually it kind of is.
The strange and somewhat poetic thing about tennis (and golf) is that it's a sport that decided a long, long time ago that only four tournaments matter. Everything else is purely to pad the pockets of everyone involved with the sport. Not a criticism, by the way.
The most voracious tennis fans can probably tell you that John McEnroe has the most career wins of any man in the Open era (148). But everyone with a modicum of tennis interest knows that Federer has the most Grand Slam titles with 17 and that he defeated Pete Sampras' record to do so, and could probably name many of the top 10 Slam winners of all time.
To use a golf analogy: Tiger Woods is three wins away from breaking Sam Snead's all-time record of 82. That's all well and good. The only number anyone, Tiger himself included, gives a damn about is 18—the number of major championships won by Jack Nicklaus.
The same principle applies in tennis.
While we're not having a legacy discussion here—good gravy, please don't let this turn into an inane legacy conversation—the emphasis on Slam titles is all the same in calendar years. When historians and fans go back and discuss who had the best year in 2013, the first thing that anyone will do is look at the result of four tournaments.
With Federer bowing out Monday, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic all have a claim to the world's best crown.
Nadal could have double-digit wins this season, but if he fails to win at Flushing Meadows, some may wonder why he hasn't won a Slam on any surface but clay since 2010. If he has double-digit wins, two Grand Slam titles and the knee injury backstory, this could be one of the greatest seasons in tennis history.
If Murray fails to repeat his 2012 U.S. Open title, we'll remember that magical Wimbledon run. How cute. He'll go back to being the little brother among this triad of greats, fairly or unfairly. Three Slam titles over his past five appearances, however? We might be witnessing some next-level stuff.
Who is the world's best men's tennis player?
As for Djokovic, this tournament may be among the most meaningful of his career.
He has six Grand Slams, but only two have come outside Melbourne. There's been a belief inside the tennis world for three years now that we should be entering an era of Djoker dominance, only it's never quite come. If he manages a second U.S. Open championship while defeating Murray in the semis no less, perhaps we're finally about to embark on that era.
If not? Well, I'll get back to you in four years when I have my PhD and can finally tell you what it takes to be considered the world's best tennis player.
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