How Does Novak Djokovic's No. 1 Streak Compare to the Greatest of All Time?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistNovember 4, 2016

How Does Novak Djokovic's No. 1 Streak Compare to the Greatest of All Time?

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    Novak Djokovic’s grip on the No. 1 ranking is now clinging to a razor-thin margin over Andy Murray’s hot challenge. The Serb has held the top spot since July 7, 2014, a streak of 122 consecutive weeks and one of the most dominant reigns of all time.

    The Djokovic streak is guaranteed to continue if he makes it to the Sunday final at the 2016 Paris Masters, or he might have to step aside for Murray’s first time with the scepter. In the weeks and months ahead, Murray has a strong chance to interrupt the Djokovic streak and send it into the history books as a static number.

    Or Djokovic could go on a tear by winning Paris and the World Tour Finals at London and roll through the early months of 2017. If so, he will look to climb the ladder for the greatest run of all time.

    Since the ATP Rankings was born in 1973, the early years of the Open era, 25 different men have held No. 1 and only nine players amassed as many as 100 or more career weeks at No. 1. Only five of these superstars put together at least 100 consecutive weeks at No. 1.

    Where does Djokovic’s 122 weeks rank in comparison to the other legendary streaks? We examine each of those amazing periods, including the historical context and legacy that they established.

102 Weeks: Pete Sampras (April 15, 1996-March 29, 1998)

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    Surprise! Pistol Pete Sampras only checks in at No. 5. with 102 consecutive weeks in the latter half of the 1990s.

    Oddly enough, this was not the most dominant period of Sampras’ career, but the competition at the top was not quite as fierce as it was in previous years, when he battled a motivated Andre Agassi, tough Jim Courier and clay-king Thomas Muster.

    The Sampras streak began during the only year between 1993-2000 that he did not win Wimbledon, 1996. He nearly lost the No. 1 ranking to No. 2 Michael Chang at the U.S. Open when he struggled to get by Alex Corretja in a classic five-set quarterfinal match that saw Sampras weaken with illness.

    A few days later, he polished off Chang in the final to keep the No. 1 ranking and never looked back when he won the 1997 Australian Open and 1997 Wimbledon. He lost No. 1 to Marcelo Rios (who never won a major) when he did not defend his U.S. or Australian Open titles in early 1998.

    The most dominant Sampras period was actually 1993-1995 when he won six majors over stiffer competition. He also recorded a fine streak of 82 weeks, which was interrupted by Agassi’s first great run in 1995.

    In all, Sampras held the No. 1 ranking on 11 different occasions between 1993 and 2000, totaling a career record of 286 weeks at No. 1, which was not surpassed until summer 2012 by another legend to be discussed later in this article.

122 Weeks: Novak Djokovic (July 7, 2014-Current)

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    Now we check in with Djokovic, who has the active streak of 122 weeks, but he needs 35 more weeks to move up to No. 3. And that’s going to be incredibly difficult even if he closes out the next few weeks at Paris and London with the No. 1 ranking.

    The first half of 2017 would probably need to see him win the Australian Open and tear through the Masters 1000 venues in the U.S. and Europe. He would need to keep No. 1 through the French Open and into Wimbledon if he is to get to 158 weeks and third place for most consecutive weeks at No. 1. He could do it, but if he isn’t playing like it’s 2015 or early 2016, he will need a Murray slump to keep the streak alive.

    Djokovic’s first streak at No. 1 lasted 53 weeks from Wimbledon 2011 to 2012, broken up by Roger Federer’s last major title. Four months later, Djokovic began another streak at No. 1 for 48 straight weeks, until Rafael Nadal surpassed him at the 2013 U.S. Open.

    So far, Djokovic has been No. 1 for 223 career weeks, already good for No. 5 on the all-time list and well ahead of giants like McEnroe, Nadal, Bjorn Borg and Agassi.

    Depending on his health, energy and motivation, and whether a young dominant champion comes along in the next year or two, the Serb has a shot at 300 career weeks.

    It’s a long grueling fight ahead, if it were to happen by late springtime 2018.

157 Weeks: Ivan Lendl (September 9, 1985-September 11, 1988)

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    There was never overwhelming fanfare for Ivan Lendl’s peak years. Many of the complaints in the American press were similar to what we hear about Djokovic now—that Lendl played with a robotic sense of perfection that bludgeoned more glamorous and aging heroes in John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.

    Lendl first got the No. 1 ranking in early 1983, but he was locked in a triangle duel with McEnroe and Connors along the lines of the climax in the spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

    Then he crushed McEnroe for the 1985 U.S. Open and dominated the next three years with his huge forehand, keen fitness and abilities to win multiple majors on clay and hard courts.

    The streak ended when rival Mats Wilander completed the year of his life, defeating Lendl in five sets at the U.S. Open for his third major title of the year.

    At the time, the footnote was whether Lendl could get three more weeks at No. 1 and catch Connors for the longest streak in the 15 years of the ATP rankings. He just missed, but he did go on to accumulate 270 career weeks at No. 1, two more weeks than Connors’ career mark—not that too many sports fans noticed.

160 Weeks: Jimmy Connors (July 29, 1974-August 22, 1977)

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    Perhaps Connors willed himself to 160 consecutive weeks at No. 1 because he was willing to play as if every match were to decide if he ate his next meal.

    Connors began the streak during his ultra-dominant 1974 season, and he was able to rack up a greater volume of points than Borg, even though the rival Swede was already the better player by the time he got roaring in the late 1970s.

    It was harder (and still is) for clay-court kings to hold the No. 1 title. Connors was adept on the speedy American (Har-Tru) green clay, and he piled on some of the U.S. Open misery that would be the empty piece to Borg’s career resume.

    To be fair, Connors had plenty of competition from aging Australian stars, Ilie Nastase, Guillermo Vilas and young McEnroe, Borg and Lendl. He earned everything with a clenched fist and aggressive mentality.

    The Connors streak of 160 consecutive weeks was saved with Mats Wilander’s victory over Lendl at the 1988 U.S. Open, and it was never threatened by the next generation of champions including Sampras. Then, in late February, 2007, it was just another depot for the Federer Express.

    Connors was so relentless that his 160 straight weeks was interrupted by Borg for only one week before he rattled off 84 more weeks, giving him 244 of 245 weeks at No. 1, which would have outlasted Federer's best mark.

    For consolation, Connors still holds the record with 109 men’s singles titles in the Open era, 15 more than Lendl and 21 more than Federer.

237 Weeks: Roger Federer (February 2, 2004-August 17, 2008)

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    Federer after defeating young Djokovic at the 2007 U.S. Open final.
    Federer after defeating young Djokovic at the 2007 U.S. Open final.TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty Images

    Almost any all-time legacy list will include Federer, and often he will be at the top.

    Federer’s four-and-a-half-year streak is so far ahead of Connors and Lendl, it’s the kind of outlier that might prove to outlast just about any other sports record, up there with Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941 or Bill Russell’s 11 championships with the 1950s-60s Boston Celtics.

    Federer did his damage by lapping the competition with 12 major titles to build up the No. 1 ranking to a ridiculous gap over Nadal and his four French Open titles. Nadal finally defeated Federer at Wimbledon in 2008 and took over No. 1 the following month.

    The Swiss Maestro got his No. 1 ranking back from Nadal after he defeated Andy Roddick in an epic 2009 Wimbledon clash. He held it for 11 months until Nadal came back with three consecutive major titles, beginning with French Open 2010.

    Finally, Federer won his 17th and last major (to date) in winning 2012 Wimbledon. He was able to surpass Sampras’ 286 career weeks at the top, finishing with 302 weeks and narrowly missing out on the year-end No. 1 that Djokovic nabbed.

    Whatever Djokovic continues to do in the next couple of years, he still has a long way before piling up 17 majors or 303 weeks at No. 1. Federer has always been recognized and praised with his records, but it might also be true that he is underrated for his just how long he held that dominance.

    It doesn't seem possible for a future superstar to hold No. 1 for nearly half a decade of consecutive weeks.