But going into 2012, there are several question marks surrounding Djokovic and some surrounding Nadal as well.
With regards to Djokovic, the main question is this: Which Djokovic will show up at the start of 2012? The one who played without weaknesses and denied Nadal in six consecutive finals? Or the one who got bageled by Kei Nishikori in the fall?
The follow up questions are: Even if it is the fully fit and superbly confident Djokovic who turns up at the start of the 2012, how long is that man going to last? And how will Djokovic deal with being the hunted rather than the hunter?
As for Nadal, many people believe that he played subpar for the entire 2011 (I’m not one of them, for my discussion see here and here) some see this as the first sign of his inevitable decline. In other words, if we follow this line of argument, Nadal’s best years and best level are behind him.
Add to that the fact that his motivation has been waning and him losing some of the passion for the game, and you see why other players might have a chance to jump ahead of him in the rankings.
Combine those question marks with Federer and Murray being the ranking point leaders from the fall, and it becomes—if not likely then less unlikely—that one of them might sneak a peek at World No. 1 provided they can keep somewhat up with Djokovic and Nadal up until then.
To be clear, I am not arguing that this will happen, but only that it might (I expect Djokovic to be the year-end No. 1 next year).
When would it happen if it happens? Well, given Djokovic’s complete dominance for the first nine months, the most likely time would be post the US Open.
If we look at the points earned post the US Open, the ranking between the Big Four are as follows:
1. Roger Federer: 3,000 points, 2. Andy Murray: 1,930 points, 3. Rafael Nadal: 590 points and 4. Novak Djokovic: 560 points.
What this means is that if Federer can stay within a 2,400-point deficit as the US Open concludes of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic and a 1,000-point deficit of Andy Murray, then he’s got the No. 1 ranking (if Juan Martin del Potro or someone else doesn’t clear the tables).
As for Murray, he can become World No. 1 if he can stay 1,100 points ahead of Federer and within a 1,300-point deficit of Djokovic and Nadal.
Aside from the lead in the ranking points in the fall and the question marks surrounding Djokovic and Nadal, there is one further reason that they have a chance:
The depth of the field.
With Bernard Tomic and Milos Raonic as rising stars, Juan Martin del Potro back in the mix, Robin Söderling hopefully healthy again, David Ferrer enjoying his second youth, Tomas Berdych back at his best and Jo-Wilfried playing as good as ever, there are several players who can upset any of the Big Four and thereby make it more difficult for Djokovic and Nadal to win or reach every final.
Who is the likeliest candidate of the two to reach the World No. 1 in 2012? Despite Federer having a better fall and thus a bigger margin, I would have to go with Murray.
Federer is turning 31 and though he is still capable of great matches and performances, it is very much in question whether he can moister the week in and week out consistency required to get to World No. 1. It’s not impossible, but it is a very tough ask.
Murray, on the other hand, is in his physical prime and is becoming ever more consistent.
If he can make a few tweaks in his game; beef up the second serve, the first serve percentage, the positive body language and mental state and believe in his own possibilities against the Big Three, he might just pull a ‘Djokovic’.
Are any of them likely to become World No. 1?
Djokovic has ruled tennis this year, and Nadal has been the clear runner-up.
But given the noted question marks surrounding the two best players of 2011, it is certainly more likely than it seemed post the US Open final.