Entering the BNP Paribas Masters a mere 415 points behind Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray can become world No. 1 as soon as Monday, depending on their respective results this week. With his rival struggling to snap out of a prolonged slump and rekindle his fire, Murray’s seized the opening with , abandon.
The reigning Wimbledon and Olympics champion is producing sensational tennis during the second half of 2016. Spurred by a strong run on the clay, Murray’s risen above the field since his reunion with former coach Ivan Lendl in early June.
Lendl and co-coach Jamie Delgado took over the reins after Amelie Mauresmo left the camp this spring. Together, they have Murray playing more aggressively and confidently than ever.
Murray specifically pointed to Delgado's presence as a key factor to his success, telling the Daily Mail's Stuart Fraser: "Since I started working with Jamie this year, my results have picked up a lot. I had my best clay-court season by far with him."
This is also clearly Murray's best overall campaign. His seven titles are the most he's captured in a single year, and at 70-9, he's two wins away from setting another personal record for a season.
Reaching No. 1 for the first time would be his pinnacle achievement given the enormous lead the formerly indestructible (and now increasingly pensive) Djokovic once held. Thanks to a trio of tournament victories in Beijing, Shanghai and Vienna this fall, he's perilously close.
Various scenarios for him to make it happen in Paris are in play.
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray's possible ranking points totals on November 7th after Paris: pic.twitter.com/MRyOe9qQUi— Stuart Fraser (@stu_fraser) October 30, 2016
Even if he doesn’t surpass Djokovic in the next few days, Murray could control his own destiny at the upcoming World Tour Finals. The combination of at least one title and a deep run at these last two events may push him over the top.
But there's more on the line than just the ranking itself. With it come an array of other spoils, including some of a symbolic and historic nature.
Since the ranking system was introduced in 1973, a total of 25 men have held the No. 1 spot. Dating back to February 2, 2004, control of it has circulated solely among Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. If Murray crashes their party and joins this exclusive club, he'd make his strongest argument yet that he should be considered an equal rather than a junior member of the Big Four. At age 29, Murray would become the oldest first-time No. 1 in 42 years.
The trio of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic also hold dominion over a different honor: the Player of the Year award. One of those three has claimed it every season going back to 2004, with Djokovic taking home four of the last five. There's a strong chance the Serbian will lock it up again on the basis of his two Grand Slam wins in 2016, though Murray can conceivibly dethrone him if he makes it to year-end No. 1 and wins Paris and London.
While Murray downplayed his chances to get there before the end of this year (probably in an effort to redirect pressure back at Djokovic), he understands the position he's in.
“I do deserve to be there, because the rankings don't lie," Murray told ATPWorldTour.com. "My goal wasn't to finish No. 1 at the end of this year. I wanted to finish this year as strong as possible, and I think there is a lot stronger chance of doing it in the early part of next year, which is what I targeted rather than this week.”
Overtaking Djokovic, whether now or early in 2017, would signal a true power grab between the two. As Djokovic lapped the field the last few seasons, we wondered how long his monarchy might last. Building enormous points leads and grabbing every title in sight, he lacked a worthy adversary. He has one now in Murray, who's poised to turn men's tennis into a two-horse race for the forseeable future.
Climbing to No. 1 could do wonders for Murray psychologically if he sees himself as more of Djokovic's equal. Remember, this is a rivalry where Murray trails 24-10 and has lost 13 of their last 15 meetings. Wrestling away the ranking might be an important first step to turning the tide in their series.
Beyond the here and now, Murray is fighting for legacy.
Sky Sports' Mark Petchey, a former coach of Murray's, suggested his former pupil would be Great Britain's greatest athlete ever if he indeed overtakes Djokovic. Overstatement or not, Murray's indeed put himself into the discussion to be considered among the country's most hallowed sportsmen.
No British player—male or female—has owned the top ranking. Erasing that dry spell would be another enormous achievement for Murray, who's accustomed to making history for his homeland.
We'll find out soon enough if Murray can accomplish all that's in reach. Completing the mission won't be easy, not with a determined Djokovic ready to make his last stand. But all the momentum is behind Murray as his dreams of becoming the new king slowly turn into reality.
All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.
Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.