Blueprint to Catch Novak Djokovic Atop the ATP Rankings

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2015

Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, reacts after winning a game against Roger Federer, of Switzerland, in the men's championship match of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)
Peter Morgan/Associated Press

There will be no drama in chasing Novak Djokovic’s insurmountable No. 1 ranking when London’s World Tour Final hands out its giant trophy to the best player in the world. The Serbian has already locked up most of the legacy-defining hardware in 2015 with three majors and four Masters 1000 titles.

Djokovic has piled up 165 career weeks in the top spot, and there is no end in sight for the moment. Next month, he will pass John McEnroe for fifth place with career weeks at No. 1.

The 28-year-old is all but guaranteed to celebrate his 200th week with the top ranking with a big fancy cake in the middle of the French Open while he bears down for the the one title slice he craves most.

In short, he will not lack for motivation as he storms deep into 2016 with the rest of the tour looking up, and he said as much to the Serbian media (h/t Tennis.com):

In tennis, I have achieved everything that I had dreamed of. I have become the world No. 1 and won the Wimbledon, but now I want to stretch my prime over a few more years. If I maintain the same approach, I think that I can play on this level for a few more years.

Except that it’s not that simple. The ATP computer never sleeps, and things can change with a few clicks of the keyboard.

David Goldman/Associated Press

 

Could Djokovic Slip in 2016?

For the other stars, a big part of the blueprint in dethroning Djokovic will require the Serbian to stumble with some of the venues that he has dominated.

In late 2014, Djokovic began a streak of huge titles by winning Paris and London’s WTF title. If he drops one or both of these titles, the chipping away will begin by hundreds of points.

In early 2016, there will be the Australian Open and the southern United States Masters 1000 titles, all of which he swept. Anything less and there could be a few thousand points off of his ranking heading into the clay-court season.

Suppose Djokovic wins half of these tournaments, which is still great by just about any other standard that is not Djokovic 2015. Suppose the Serb resembles more of the player he was in 2012 or 2013, great, but leaving a window open for someone else to come along, like the torrid tennis comeback from superstar rival Rafael Nadal in 2013.

If Djokovic drops the No. 1 baton by summer, he will most likely have to look in the mirror for the first explanation.

Perhaps he would be injured or fatigue. Maybe there would be a technical struggle with his serving or reduced pace and efficiency off of his groundstrokes to make him more vulnerable. Age could suddenly strike, and the fine line between domination and parity disintegrate.

Who would take advantage of any slippage from Djokovic?

 

Hard-Charging Superstar

When Djokovic does eventually slip, whether it’s weeks or years from now, a division of his titles might not be enough for Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka or other stars to catch up. Parity at the top could still smile favorably on the Serbian because of the points that he has banked for the next year.

One other star needs to step up and set the pace. Is there someone out there who can put in the energy and consistency for a special year in grabbing eight to 10 titles, including a couple of majors and at least three Masters 1000 titles?

For all of Federer’s greatness, he has already shown that he is more likely to pace himself and try to peak for major No. 18. The 34-year-old may not have the youth that he needs to burn hard after the No. 1 ranking. If the next few months result in a title at Shanghai, London and Melbourne, then maybe the Swiss maestro would brace up for one more charge.

He would need to build now with the fast surfaces of the fall, because springtime has not traditionally been his forte. It’s usually a time for him taper and gear up for Wimbledon and beyond.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Then there’s Wawrinka, who is a better bet than Federer to win the Australian Open. Could he gather up the consistency needed to tear through the southern U.S. and add more clay-court Masters 1000 titles to the 2014 Monte Carlo trophy that sits on his shelf? He has not proven this kind of consistency, and he has also entered his 30s. It does not seem likely unless he catches fire.

Murray, 28, might have the best blend of age and consistency to run after Djokovic, but he will need bigger success than he had under coach Ivan Lendl from 2012-13. It’s hard to see him winning the WTF title with his country’s Davis Cup championship weekend perhaps a greater priority.

So Murray might need to win the Australian Open and have a dominant spring to compete with Djokovic for top billing. So far he has not really been that close in his career, despite holding the No. 2 ranking.

The Scot might need another Wimbledon title, which seems more difficult given the way Djokovic and Federer have raised the bar to compete for that one.

How about one of the youngsters like fading Grigor Dimitrov, green Dominic Thiem or brash Nick Kyrgios? Could one of them turn the tennis world upside down? Until proven, it’s an outlandish theory better suited for science fiction.

Or maybe Nadal reaches into the past and finds more of his old confidence and form. Suppose he breaks through his cursed Melbourne woes? If he does, there’s no reason to doubt that he could resurrect into the clay-court god he was for a decade.

Does he have the energy and fight to get it done? Why not? He’s a proud warrior who might even better appreciate what it would mean to squeeze every last ounce of opportunity out of majors and Masters 1000 tournaments.

If the 29-year-old is back with all the physical and technical adjustments he can muster, the rest could indeed follow for another French Open title.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 13:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates with the winner's trophy after defeating Roger Federer of Switzerland during their Men's Singles Final match on Day Fourteen of the 2015 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis
Michael Heiman/Getty Images

 

Djokovic Rolls On

The best part is that we just do not know the rest of the story. Djokovic has earned his place at the top with one of the most-marvelous years we have seen in tennis history.

He’s not going to be easy to dethrone, and there is plenty to appreciate in how he has continued to set a legendary standard on the ATP tour.

Years from now, they will talk about King Novak.

But one day it will end, perhaps differently than the possibilities we just examined heading towards 2016. For now, just understand he is on a level that is most impressive, but that will take perhaps even greater effort for him to defend.

It’s not easy being the No. 1 target.

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