With Rafael Nadal forced to withdraw from his title defense at the 2014 U.S. Open, the overarching mood heading into Thursday's draw was one of inevitability. Novak Djokovic would win. All we would see was the order in which the remaining flotsam would be picked off.
The draw proved anything but favorable for the top-seeded star, who watched on as a gauntlet was laid before him in New York. Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and Milos Raonic are all on his side of the bracket—and that's without mentioning the likes of Kei Nishikori, Tommy Robredo and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hanging around as potential spoilers.
Six of the top 10 seeds and three of the top five are on his side of the bracket. Wawrinka prevented Djokovic from winning a fourth straight Australian Open. Murray, who dominated Djokovic the last time the two played in a Grand Slam (2013 Wimbledon championship), is one of the three best players in the world when healthy. The Serb might even have to face off against John Isner, who—oh nothing—will only have the backing of an entire country behind him as the top-seeded American.
It's the type of draw that makes one wonder why there isn't a more structured and orderly way to go about setting matchups.
Compare Djokovic's path to that of Roger Federer, who ascends to the second seed in a post-Nadal universe. While he has the consistently solid David Ferrer looming as a semifinals opponent, the all-time leading Grand Slam winner should have a breezy ride to the final four. Seventh-seeded Grigor Dimitrov is the only even slightly serious threat before the semis, barring a shocking upset.
If the top seed were given a tennis equivalent of the Yankee swap, the question would barely be out of anyone's mouth before Djokovic was trading places. The odds have already swung the slightest big in Federer's favor, as he's moved from 3-1 odds to 11-4 after the draw, per Odds Shark.
It all sounds nice. Federer, should all the Americans bow out early, is an easy crowd favorite. He's the best story, and a triumph on the hard court might prove the perfect capper to a storied career. Djokovic is 27, in the prime of his career and hasn't resonated with a wide audience the same way Federer and Nadal have. The narrative wants Federer.
Which would make this as good a time as any for a reminder that Novak Djokovic is the best tennis player in the world. With Nadal out, frankly the talent chasm between Djokovic and the rest of the field is seismic.
While a wildly confusing and imperfect grading system, tennis' world rankings are the best measure of consistency we have at our disposal. (Tennis, unlike other sports, is still in the infancy of its advanced-stats movement, and even the ones being developed have flaws.)
Across 18 tournaments during the rankings period, Djokovic has accumulated 12,770 points. Nadal, despite playing two more events, is more than 2,000 points behind—which is still relatively close in this weird system.
Everyone else? They might as well be playing in a different league. Federer is currently ranked third. He has 7,490 points. He is the last player on this planet who even has half of Djokovic's total.
If you're having trouble understanding what this means, let's put it like this: Wawrinka (5,985 points), who is currently considered the fourth-best tennis player on this whole big, blue marble, is closer to 2,244th-ranked Kuatbek Abiyev (one point) than he is to Djokovic (12,770 points). That is either a sign tennis' rankings system is completely busted or will be the first line in Djoker's tennis obituary. (OK, it's probably more of the former; stop ruining my point.)
Further, Djokovic has been the most consistent player in tennis over the past half-decade. He has made the quarterfinals in 21 straight Grand Slam appearances, a run never touched by Nadal and one that's starting to resemble perhaps the most impressive feat of Federer's career: The 33-year-old set a record with 36 consecutive quarterfinal appearances from 2004-2013.
Djokovic remains the favorite via his sheer consistency. It's worth remembering in situations such as these that saying someone is the "favorite" to win something is not necessarily saying they will. We're assessing percentages and noting the likelihood of outcomes.
That said, there have been signs of hope outside the mere happenstance of a difficult draw. Since returning for the U.S. Open primer tournaments, Djokovic has been totally out of sorts. He's been ousted in the third round in Toronto and Cincinnati, which broke a season-long run of at least making the quarters in every single's tournament of 2014.
"I don't think Novak's mind has been into it since [Wimbledon]—it was one of the greatest matches I ever saw at Wimbledon," tennis great John McEnroe recently said on a conference call. "He got married. I didn't see a lot of his matches since, but I saw a few. I think it was difficult for him to get back into the swing of things. I believe he'll be ready here."
The best hope for the field is Djokovic remaining in poor form. Generally considered the best hard-court player in the world, he's had only four matches on the surface since March. While half of his wins on tour this season were on hard courts, Flushing has proven to be perhaps his most frustrating event. Despite four straight finals appearances, Djokovic only has the 2011 U.S. Open title on his mantel.
Thursday's draw stacks the deck for another disappointment. But if Djokovic doesn't come away with his second Slam of 2014, it won't be because of who he played but how.
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.
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