While that may seem nearly insurmountable considering the level Djokovic has been playing at, Nadal really is in striking distance to overtake him. There are things within his control and other outside factors that could guide the Spaniard back to the top spot in the rankings. The following is a look at some of them.
Of course, winning it all again a la 2009 would be nice...
However, making the finals would be a great result, both confidence- and points-wise. Nadal fell in the quarterfinals in 2010 to countryman David Ferrer, so any result improving upon that could provide the points needed to start closing the gap between him and Djokovic.
Nadal has only made it to one final in his career during the European winter indoor season: losing in 2009 to Andy Murray at the event in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 2009.
The past two seasons, he's been forced to take time off after the Australian Open and miss the whole stretch. Provided he's healthy, a trophy could be his for the taking at Rotterdam—or Marseilles, France, or Zagreb, Croatia.
Nadal's ascension began in earnest back in 2005 when he won two tournaments during the early-season clay-court run through Latin America known as "the Golden Swing." He won events in Acapulco and Costa Do Sauipe, for his second and third career titles.
Showing up at at least one of the three tournaments and coming home with the trophy could build some momentum and help close the point tally.
So while Nadal is looking to move up the rankings, there's a guy that's nipping at his heels, too.
Roger Federer has made it known that he has all intentions of getting back to the top. He won his last match against Nadal quite handily at the ATP World Tour Finals on his way to the title. With Nadal at two and Federer at three in the rankings, those two could be in-store for some semifinal match-ups at the biggest tournaments early on in the year if Djokovic and Murray are there, too.
Holding Federer off will be key to any goals early on in the year.
Nadal has had great success at the two early hard-court Masters 1000 events: winning in Indian Wells, Calif., twice and making a final there, while finishing runner-up in Miami twice. Capturing the crown at at least one of the venues could serve him well heading into his favorite part of the season.
It's not a common sight: Nadal holding up the runner-up trophy at the end of a clay-court tournament. The fact that it happened twice in 2011 is even more shocking. Nadal still came away with the crown prize during the clay season, the French Open, but he finished in second place twice to Djokovic in Rome and Madrid.
He gave up a lot of ground to Djokovic in '11: First thing, though, Nadal has to figure out how to stop him on a surface he had been 9-0 in head-to-head matches against.
After the clay-court stretch, things only get faster—surface-wise, that is. Grass doesn't play as fast as it did during the days of Pete Sampras, but it is somewhat quicker than the clay. Nadal still engages in a ton of baseline rallies on the turf, when he could use some of the court speed to force the issue more.
Serving and volleying can help shorten some of the points. And being one of the few elite left-handers in the game could give his competitors a different look when he's hitting a swing serve out wide and knocking off the return to the open court.
Nadal has stated that he intends to skip Davis Cup in 2012 to focus on the Olympics, which is a noble goal.
But you're talking about a lot of two-week tournaments over a short period of time, particularly for a player that has struggled with injury in his career. It's to the defending Gold Medalist's benefits that he gets to earn ranking points at the event. Something, though, will have to give—whether it's the French, Wimbledon or the Olympics—if he wants to last the whole season. The Olympics might be the most viable option for less consideration.
What do Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Jurgen Melzer and Florian Mayer all have in common? They've all beaten Nadal during the tour's "Asian swing" over the past two years.
Those three clearly aren't in the same caliber as Nadal with six singles titles between them, but they've been able to catch a tired Rafa who's either come off a U.S. Open title, as in 2010, or made the finals, in '11.
Nadal's not giving himself enough time to rest and it shows: Excluding Davis Cup, he's only won three titles in his career after the U.S. Open. Perhaps just showing up for the Masters 1000 event in Shanghai will leave him fresher for the home stretch.
Djokovic recorded one of the best seasons in tennis history in 2011, winning five Masters 1000 titles and three Grand Slams, including the U.S. Open. But that success comes with a cost: He'll have to defend a lot of points to maintain his ranking—a fact Nadal is surely aware of. Can Djokovic do it? His body seemed to betray him during the end of the year.
He knows, though, what he has to do to fend off the challengers—which Nadal happens to lead.
Nadal finished off 2011 in style, and will be motivated to put an end to Djokovic's reign at the top in '12.