When Will Rafael Nadal's Reign at No. 1 Start and How Long Will It Last?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2013

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10:  2013 US Open Champion Rafael Nadal of Spain poses with the US Open Championship trophy, following his victory in the men's singles final match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia, in Central Park on September 10, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal is ready to take the ATP World No. 1 ranking at the China Open in Beijing on October 7. Currently, Nadal (10,860) trails Novak Djokovic (11,120) by 260 points.

With both players slated to play Beijing, Djokovic can only defend his 500 points by winning the tournament. He can still hold the No. 1 ranking if he drops 200 points as a finalist and Nadal is quickly eliminated. If he does not make the final, he will fall behind Nadal

Nadal can clinch the No. 1 ranking by making it to at least the finals regardless of Djokovic. He would add 300 for this achievement because he did not play in Beijing last year and has no points to defend. If he wins the tournament, he will gain the full 500 points. Barring a major upset, Nadal will be No. 1.

Djokovic’s reign as the No. 1 player will have lasted 101 weeks, including all but 17 weeks since assuming the top position on July 4, 2011, with his Wimbledon title.

Nadal, who currently has 102 career weeks as No. 1, looks to reign at the top for a long time, perhaps a very long time.

The Road Ahead

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Nadal and Djokovic are scheduled to play Shanghai two weeks after Beijing. Shanghai is a Masters 1000 tournament and another title Djokovic must defend in order to avoid dropping more points. Nadal is likely to keep increasing his gap, all the way to the year-end World Tour Finals in London.

Currently, Nadal (11,015) is almost 3,000 points ahead of Djokovic (8,110) in the race to winning the year-end No. 1 ranking. If both players perform equally into mid-November, Nadal will be able to maintain this huge advantage.

The 2014 Australian Open will be another huge opportunity for Nadal. If Djokovic does not defend his title at Melbourne, he will drop a minimum of 800 points. Meanwhile, Nadal could add 720 points for a semifinal appearance and either 1,200 or 2,000 points if he were to win one or two more matches. This could conceivably add another 2,000-point gain for Nadal and put him about 5,000 points ahead.

As spring comes, Nadal will then have many points to defend, including Indian Wells, Madrid, Rome and Paris, totaling 5,000 points, not including the South American clay-court swing in February and a finals appearance at Monte Carlo. But barring injury or an inexplicable collapse on clay, Nadal will still retain his No. 1 ranking and have another opportunity to grab big points at Wimbledon.

He will need a strong lead for next summer to give him a margin of error to defend his perfect 2013 North American Triple Crown.

All of this adds up to a very likely stay at No. 1 for the next year and possibly beyond.

Historical Clout

Nadal has been one of the greatest players of all time the past eight years, yet he can continue to bolster his legacy with more time at No. 1. Historically, he is ranked seventh in the Open era with weeks at No. 1.

For nearly half of Nadal’s career, he has been chasing Roger Federer. This was a tough task because of Federer’s greater consistency on hard courts and grass through 2008. Many tennis fans who look at Federer as the standard for the best tennis career of all time, point to his consistency at the top, including his record 302 weeks.

Nadal will likely not get to 300 weeks, but another year at No. 1 would get him halfway there. Two more years would crack the 200-week level and give him the kind of long-term dominance people more often associate with Federer, Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors.

Being No. 1 a long time is not the all-important measurement for a great player’s career, but it is an indicator of how long a player’s greatness lasted. For instance, many tennis fans would choose Bjorn Borg to be a greater player than Connors, Lendl or John McEnroe, but he spent fewer weeks (107) at No. 1.

Federer fans and defenders often point to the Swiss Maestro’s 17 Grand Slam titles, 302 weeks at No. 1 and more balance with winning on three of four Grand Slam venues. He has had five multi-Slam seasons. They point out that his records prove more longevity of greatness than Nadal.

Nadal fans often point out that Nadal’s greatness on clay is more dominant than anything Federer did on grass or hard courts. He has won more Masters 1000 tournaments and has won 21 of 31 head-to-head matches. They point out that at his best, he is the superior player and that given time, he will add to his greatness.

There are countless other arguments of course, but comparing apples and oranges is a fruitless discussion. It will be decided by individual tastes and preferences.

How Much More?

Nadal’s greatness has now hit a third peak with 2013 being the third time he has had a multi-Slam season. It seems that he could have more dominant seasons before entering his 30s, but he has also had a history of obstacles that have curtailed his time spent at No. 1.

His knees and injury patterns are always a concern. Will he be healthy and able to play at or near his current form into his 30s?

There is also the added factor of having to chase down a legendary dominator like Federer, only to have Djokovic come along from behind and add a greater degree of competition and rivalry. Nadal has been at the center of these rivalries in an increasingly deeper and more competitive ATP.

Will Djokovic or Andy Murray be able to turn in a monster 2014? It can be easier to be the hunter rather than the hunted.

Still, Nadal’s title as King of Clay has often overshadowed his stellar play on the other surfaces. He continues to evolve his game with more variety and cerebral adjustments. Above all, his heart and competitiveness have driven him like no other player. He is a fighter, and only age or injuries will one day cause him to step aside.

Just how much further will this talented Spanish champion travel? How much more hardware will he collect? Does he have more or less than another 100 weeks at No. 1?

He might already be the best player tennis has ever seen, but he’s clearly not finished yet.


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