Roger Federer must be getting very sore Achilles tendons right now. With Rafael Nadal heading away over the horizon, Federer is feeling the teeth of not just one but two challengers snapping at his heels.
If he shows just one twitch of hesitation, or makes the slightest of stumbles, he may be trodden into the ground by a hungry Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray racing to fill his No. 2 shoes.
Barring thunderbolts and plague, it’s highly unlikely that Federer will lose his place at Roland Garros. If he does, it will most likely be to Andy Murray, who has big points to gain—in excess of 1,000—simply by making it as far as the semis.
No, the fun begins on the grass and Djokovic, in a mischievous tactic, has moved his pre-Wimbledon preparation to Federer’s favoured tournament in Halle, Germany.
Federer as good as owns the Gerry Weber trophy: He’s put his name on it for five out of the last six years. The next highest seed there last year was James Blake—few other players posed any sort of threat on Federer’s turf at all.
It has always been the Queen’s Club in London that attracted the strong grass-court field. And sure enough, last year’s winner, Nadal, is back to defend the title he won against Djokovic in 2008. Past winner Andy Roddick also returns to Queens, as does home favourite Andy Murray.
But this year, the balance of power has shifted. Ranged against Federer in Halle are the dangerous Fernando Verdasco and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, along with the ambitious Djokovic.
I smell a plot! Djokovic has, it would seem, spotted a real opportunity to overtake Federer on the hallowed grass of Wimbledon.
Take a look at the figures. By the conclusion of the French Open, Federer is likely to be at least 200 points worse off than last year, even if he reaches the final again—a result of the new value of tournament placings in 2009.
Djokovic should, at the very least, make the semis again, so would lose similar points. However at Wimbledon, he will really fancy his chances of making it to the final, thus achieving a jump of around 1,100 points. Should he only make the semis—and on current form that must be a reasonable expectation—he will still gain 650 points.
Look at Federer though. He can lose 200 points at Wimbledon just from being the losing finalist again. He would drop a massive 680 points if he fell at the semis (or did the same at Roland Garros).
There are so many permutations, but the bottom line is: Djokovic can get very close to Federer if both players reach a final and a semi at the French and at Wimbledon.
Suddenly, Halle takes on a new complexion. Federer has 450 points to lose in Germany. As a losing finalist, he would only win back 150 of them. So potentially, Halle represents the difference between a Djokovic or a Federer No. 2 after Wimbledon.
But just put the points to one side for a moment. Let’s assume a Federer/Djokovic final in Halle. And let’s assume a close match, even a Djokovic win. Then imagine the confidence gained by the winner. And then picture a Wimbledon draw that throws them together.
So Djokovic might be playing a very clever game in making what, on the surface, seems a small switch in his schedule. Because while he may have Murray between him and that No. 2 spot, he has the potential to put on a lot more points than the No. 3—particularly in his current form.
However, there’s no questioning Federer’s form just now, and his rising curve in the last few weeks has taken a higher trajectory than anyone else’s.
So to add a little more spice to the scenario, let’s shift the focus onto Federer’s target, and mix a little more imagination into the recipe.
Let’s suppose Federer wins at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Even if Nadal is the runner up in both cases, the gap between them closes dramatically, from around 4500 to nearer 1500.
Take the projection forward to the end of July and assume Nadal makes it only to the semis in the Canadian Masters: that’s another 640 lost.
By Cincinnati, Nadal may begin to feel the pain in his knees as the hard courts work their worst, and only make the quarters rather than the semis: a further 270 lost.
In August, his 800 points from Beijing disappear (Federer only has 200 to lose).
In October, both lose 450 points from the “old” Madrid, and both defend 250 points at the Paris indoor.
Federer, meanwhile, only has 160 points to defend from Cincinnati and Canada combined. He therefore needs only to make the semis in one of them and he gains around 500 points.
Indeed, he can afford to opt out of both with little penalty and, with one eye on the pregnancy calendar, July looks to be a good guess (or rather a good 40-week calculation from post-Flushing Meadow) for paternity leave. Now that would be timing on a par with his best forehand!
Also in October, the Basel 500 drop off Federer’s total, though he can recoup at least 300 of those by reaching the final.
This all points to a US Open of huge significance. If Federer is runner up, he loses 800 points, and if Nadal reaches the semis again, he loses 180. The stunning consequence of all these calculations is that, by the time they arrive at the O2 arena in London, Nadal and Federer could be separated by almost exactly the points available to the winner of the World Tour final.
Now that’s a lot of ifs and buts. It’s also a thrilling prospect!
Will Nadal maintain enough fitness and energy to break through in New York and beyond?
Will Djokovic sustain his form and endurance through the summer to steal a Grand Slam at Wimbledon or Flushing Meadow?
Will Murray improve as the year advances into the hard court season as he did last year? Will he, indeed, snatch his first Slam from under the noses of the other three on that newly-covered Centre Court?
Will Federer apply the thumb screws to the rest with his resurgent fitness and technique? Or will baby Federer throw the year’s rankings right out the window?
Time will tell. But the early signs are that, regardless of all these variables, Djokovic has both a cunning strategy and a deadly serious intent.