Andy Murray continues his sizzling summer as the No. 1 seed at the Cincinnati Western & Southern Open, hot on the heels of winning the men’s singles gold medal in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. He’s suddenly in position to reach new territory in his career with a chance at the world’s top ranking in the months ahead.
Two months ago, the Scottish superstar had trailed rival Novak Djokovic by over 8,000 points in the ATP rankings at the conclusion of the French Open. The Serb had looked invincible, holding all four major titles and finally conquering the clay courts at Roland Garros. Murray was the No. 2 player in the rankings, but he may as well have been paddling from the other side of the world.
Then Djokovic was ousted in the third round at Wimbledon, while Murray snapped a three-year drought without a major title by claiming that major.
From there, Djokovic won the Rogers Cup, and Murray won the Olympic gold medal. The big takeaway is Djokovic has been reeling a bit compared to his ridiculously high dominance, while Murray has been playing stellar tennis since his reunion with coach Ivan Lendl prior to Wimbledon.
Could Murray actually track down Djokovic in the months ahead and claim the No. 1 ranking? What needs to happen?
Great Britain’s Davis Cup captain Leon Smith has watched Murray grow throughout his professional career, and he had a hand in guiding their 2015 Davis Cup championship. Smith is not prone to hyperbole, but he was genuine in talking about Murray’s improvements a few days before winning Wimbledon, according to Press Association Sport (h/t Eurosport):
I think he's playing his best tennis of his life. He's continued to improve so many areas of his game.
Even from when he won here (2013) and the US Open (2012), you look at his game and his second serve in particular is so much improved.
His net play, his confidence going forward - you just look at the stats from this (Wimbledon) week and he's come forward with a lot of success. And the aggression of his game. He's playing closer to the baseline, dictating a lot of the points.
The more aggressive approach was something Coach Lendl guided during their successful stint from 2012-14, when Murray won two majors and the 2012 Olympic gold medal in singles.
It’s no coincidence he's playing with greater passion and finding more opportunities to attack under Lendl. This bodes well for upcoming tournaments at Cincinnati and the U.S. Open, since Murray is better on quicker surfaces than the slow, high-bouncing Olympic courts in Brazil.
Murray has always played with his defense first, and few players in tennis history are in his class as a retriever. He combines that with a talent for mixing his groundstrokes and pushing his opponents off balance.
Now, he’s more frequently stepping closer to the baseline and able to create windows that lead to forced errors or winners. And best of all, Murray is supremely confident and has the hunger to get all the way to the top.
"I still feel like my best tennis is ahead of me, that I have an opportunity to win more," Murray said following his Wimbledon title (via BBC Sport). "Everyone's time comes at different stages. Hopefully mine is to come."
No sooner had the Scot climbed down from the podium with the gold medal around his neck, he was preparing to fly from Brazil to the upper United States. He wasn’t going to pass up the chance to be the No. 1 seed in a Masters 1000 tournament without Djokovic. His eyes are wide-open with 1,000 possible ranking points for the taking.
Detour with Djokovic
Meanwhile, Djokovic has been more pedestrian by his standards. While he could be excused for finally losing in a major with his shocking third-round defeat to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, the Serb did rebound for the Rogers Cup title.
But losing in first-round Olympic match was a crushing disappointment for King Novak, who has placed great value on prestigious titles. He wanted the gold medal in singles and was ambushed by big-hitting Juan Martin del Potro, who looked like his former superstar self once again.
Djokovic later withdrew from Cincinnati because of a left wrist injury that needs rest and healing, according to comments he made in a statement. It must have been an agonizing decision, because Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open is the only Masters 1000 title he has not won; the opportunity would have been conceivably easier with seven-time champion Roger Federer sidelined for the remainder of 2016.
Instead, Djokovic will lose the 600 runner-up points he gained a year ago, and it remains to be seen if he will have the health and timing he needs to defend his U.S. Open title. He will still be up about 5,000-6,000 points after the Cincinnati trophy vase is awarded, depending on Murray’s success or failure.
If Djokovic comes back fit and rejuvenated, he has the leg up on keeping his No. 1 ranking through 2016. He’s the favorite at any tournament he plays and leads the ATP’s Race to London, meaning he has scored 9,040 points thus far in 2016, while Murray will arrive in Cincinnati with 7,225 points.
Djokovic is the standard, but Murray is closing the gap, and perhaps their rivalry will heat up like never before.
Murray’s Mathematical Road to No. 1
If Murray wins Cincinnati, he would close within 815 points of Djokovic for total points in 2016.
The U.S. Open is where the No. 1 ranking could lean toward the Serb’s firm grip or Murray’s great opportunity. Last year, Djokovic won the U.S. Open and collected 2,000 ranking points. Murray fell in the fourth round and picked up only 180 points.
This means Murray can gain a full 1,020 points on Djokovic if he gets to the final and loses to Djokovic. Combined with the Cincinnati title, Murray would be ahead of his rival in the Race to London.
If Murray wins the U.S. Open over Djokovic, he would earn 1,820 points, and Djokovic would drop 800 points. That amounts to a staggering 2,620-point gain in the overall rankings. Combined with the Cincinnati title, Djokovic would have 14,040 points, and the Scot would have 11,525 points.
If Djokovic had an early exit at the U.S. Open, say the fourth round, he would be No. 1 with 13,020 points— a slim 1,495 points ahead of U.S. Open champion Murray.
So Djokovic is secure for now, even by missing Cincinnati and losing early at the U.S. Open. Murray would need both titles to put the pressure on the top ranking. Then the year-end No. 1 would likely be decided in November pending results at places like Beijing, Tokyo, Shanghai, the Paris Masters and the ATP World Tour Finals in London.
Keep in mind, Djokovic dominated those events, so Murray can continue to chip away with several hundred points at each tournament, and especially at the WTF, where Djokovic outscored Murray 1,500 points to 200 in 2015.
A Murray streak of titles gives him a strong chance at the No. 1 ranking. A Djokovic resurgence, especially defending the U.S. Open, means Murray might have to shoot for No. 1 at the Australian Open in January, or he might have to climb closer in March at Indian Wells and Miami.
A lot will happen by then, but for now, Murray’s most critical period is the month ahead. It will either put him in position to strike at No. 1 or remove him from the opportunity, at least in 2016.
It’s a tough task ahead—one that likely requires Murray to be healthy and dominant against everyone on tour and especially to win a couple of head-to-head duels against Djokovic.
Unless Murray builds on his latest streak, Djokovic is quite safe.