Climbing the Mountain: How High Will Nadal and Djokovic Go?
The first two Masters Series events of the year obviously help set the tone for the tennis year. When Jim Courier won consecutive Super 9 titles at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne in 1991, it helped him gather momentum headed into the French Open, and Courier won his first Grand Slam title. Michael Chang pulled the same double play in 1992 and parlayed it into a #4 seed at the U.S. Open and a 5 set semifinal loss. Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras’ clashes in the finals of Indian Wells and Key Biscayne contributed to their epic struggle for #1 in 1995. From Marcelo Rios in 1998, to Roger Federer in 2005 and 2006 to Novak Djokovic in 2007, strong showings at both events have boded well for those who demonstrate great form in March and April.
Split Decision in 2008?
Roger’s Theory of Relativity
Last Season Roger Federer won the Australian Open and Dubai and accumulated 1300 ranking points in the process. The 2007 Masters Series Indian Wells and Masters SeriesMiami were not nearly as kind to Federer as he accumulated only 80 ranking points at the two events. By reaching the Indian Wells semifinals, Federer added 220 points to his world ranking. Federer will at worst finish Miami with a quarterfinal finish worth 50 points more than he did 2007. Therefore, over these two events Roger has improved his ranking points by at least 270 points. That does not as yet make up for his loss of 845 ranking points from the Australian Open and Dubai, but Federer has rebounded to a degree.
Djokovic accumulated 850 ranking points at Indiana Wells and Miami in 2007. He played sublime tennis to win Indian Wells in March 2008. He has been the clear top dog of 2008 to this point. Still, his loss in his first Miami match means Novak has netted 345 fewer points in these two Master Series events than in 2007. Relative to Roger, Novak has fallen at least 615 ranking points further behind Federer despite winning Indian Wells 2008. Even if Nadal wins Miami, he will only add 100 points to his 2007 totals for these first two Masters Series events. Therefore, Rafa’s best case and Roger’s worst case scenario still leaves Nadal 170 points further behind Roger than he was at the end of Dubai. Obviously if Roger wants to finish 2008 at #1 he will need to win at least one Grand Slam title and likely need to win a few Masters Series shields due to the low number of tournaments he plays, but Roger is still in the 2008 rankings marathon even if he lost the first leg of the race.
The Psychology of Being Close
Reaching #1 is a lifetime goal for most tennis players. Coming close to that goal can complicate life as each shot, point, and match takes on added significance. I do not want to make the quest for #1 sound like Frodo Baggins climbing Mount Doom, but the burden of being near a lifetime goal is a reality. Unlike many team sports, time outs, coaching and substitutions cannot be used to diffuse tension. To reach #1 in tennis a player has to let his or her racket do the talking. Rafael Nadal has not played great tennis since Wimbledon 2007, but he still posted runner-up finishes in France and India, semifinal finishes at Indian Wells, Melbourne and the Masters Cup. This consistent play combined with Nadal’s clay court dominance and Federer’s early missteps left Nadal conceivably within one or two tournaments of the #1 ranking. While Djokovic is certainly capable of beating Nadal on any surface, Rafa’s one sided loss might have been impacted by the fact that defending his title at Indian Wells was a key component to gaining the #1 ranking in the near term. Now, Nadal is somewhat comfortably behind Roger Federer once again.
Novak Djokovic is not as of yet mathematically quite in range of #1, but it is on the horizon of his vision. I was ready after Indian Wells to declare Djokovic in a similar position to Mats Wilander in 1988. Wilander won the Australian Open and Key Biscayne in early 1988 and eventually overtook Ivan Lendl for the #1 ranking. Sometimes the computer has a lag time in declaring #1 even if a lower ranked player is playing the best tennis in the world. Roger Federer was clearly playing the best tennis at the end of the 2003 Masters Cup but did not reach #1 until February 2004. Novak was close to being the unnamed #1 and then he loses his first match in Miami where he was defending champion? Sure a 6’7” opponent and a warning from an umpire can unnerve a player, but Djokovic may not have been ready for all that a repeat of his 2007 win in Miami would have implied about his place in the tennis food chain. I have no doubt that both Nadal and Djokovic have what it takes to reach #1, but I also think each will have to come to terms with the baggage that is associated with being #1 to take that next step. After all, players such as Boris Becker and Jim Courier found being #1 to be a heavy responsibility. For over 4 years no one other than Roger Federer has had to worry about carrying that weight, but the time might be drawing near for burden sharing. In that moment, it will become clear if getting to the top or staying at the top is a harder task. My guess is the heavy lifting is just beginning for Nadal and Djokovic.
Finally, I want to introduce myself to the Tennis-X readers. My name is Dan Martin, and I am a life long tennis fan and a sometimes proficient tennis player. My earliest tennis memories revolve around watching the weekend hacking of my father as well as seeing the Jimmy Connors vs. John McEnroe 1982 Wimbledon final. Boris Becker’s 1985 Wimbledon title really hooked me into watching professional tennis. For the better part of two years I wrote a tennis column at 411mania.com and am thankful for that opportunity to write about such a great sport. I am very excited to be writing for a website that covers tennis exclusively.
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