The ATP computer doesn’t lie. It doesn’t play favorites or instincts. It just processes numbers. In the last 12 months Roger Federer has one Grand Slam title in one final. Rival Novak Djokovic has two Grand Slam titles in three finals, Rafael Nadal has one title in three finals. Yet it is Federer standing on top the men’s rankings today and not Djokovic or Nadal. Why? Because the Swiss knows how to play the schedule and make the most of his ranking points.
I wrote last year that I thought nobody in the history of tennis schedules smarter than Federer. And with his latest coup on the rankings we have further confirmation: His scheduling prowess is indeed another weapon.
While Djokovic and Nadal were “resting” (on their laurels?) at the end of last year and in February after the Australian, thinking it was a 1-2 race, Federer was busy collecting titles, snatching points like the ATP finals with a secret eye on returning to No. 1 and overtaking Pete Sampras’ record. Rotterdam, Basel, etc are not the biggest of wins, but collectively they add up and after he won Wimbledon on Sunday those smaller events finally paid off awarding him just enough to sneak past Djokovic by 75 points. That’s right, 75 points.
With the disparity in Slam results, people will question the validity of his ranking. But facts are facts are facts. He’s accrued more points the last 12 months than anyone else. The ATP finals and the Paris Indoors, two events Djokovic, who had long wrapped up No. 1 earlier in the year, basically half-assed out of are costing him today. Now he’s looking up at the rankings. Nadal the same.
With the top-heaviness of the men’s tour, Federer is basically telling his rivals, “If you don’t want those events, great, because I’ll come in and take them.”
The season isn’t nine months, it’s 11. Federer understands that. I don’t think Djokovic and Nadal do.
So Djokovic/Nadal collectively have to be thinking, “What the hell just happened? We’ve dominated the Slams! The old man was dead and buried and now he’s in the driver’s seat for No. 1? Huh?”
Djokovic and to some extent Nadal have played the high risk game of betting on their Slam results. It’s the same one employed by the Williams sisters, Agassi and others, with mixed success. But there’s a very low margin for error. If you don’t do well – like Nadal did at Wimbledon – your rankings suffer. And Novak’s in a similar situation.
When someone like Federer is piling up points all the events you might not care about, you can get yourself in trouble with the rankings. That’s what happened.
But then again, are these guys like Novak and Rafa even interested in the No. 1 ranking? I don’t know. Greats like Sampras, Lendl, McEnroe were. Maybe this generation, aside from Federer, don’t care. Maybe for them the challenge of staying on top for an extended period of time is far too tough these days. I don’t know.
For Djokovic, the problem may be much deeper. I really thought after the way he finished the French Open final against Nadal he had his game on track after an off-peak start to the season. But against Federer in the semifinals last week at times he appeared to be resigned to losing; the road back was just too tough and that drive, the belief wasn’t there. Like he had said, “You know what, I reached my goals, I made my No. 1, I won my Wimbledon last year, that’s good enough.”
And really that’s been the case for Novak since the US Open. It’s as if after he won New York he took a big fat exhale. To be the best in any sport, you can’t do that. Federer never did. Sampras never did. Novak probably did. (Again, facts are facts, since his US Open win he has won just TWO titles.)
The way Novak played against Roger – and Roger played really well – I have to wonder how much the guy really wants it. At 25 Novak is in the very prime of his career. He should be at his peak. But does he want to put the work in to stay the best or now that he’s reached the top does he want to enjoy all the spoils that come with it like being in movies or commercials, etc? Right now, it’s probably the latter.
As for Nadal, Rafa we know he puts the work in. He wants it. But I’m not sure his body will allow it. With the clay/grass season over and hardcourts ahead from here until the end, it’s tough to see Rafa doing much damage – remember he hasn’t won off clay since 2010 Tokyo, but he’s going to fight for it. Somehow Rafa’s going to need to start winning on surfaces other than clay. At 26 with his knee troubles, it’s a tall order.
Back to Federer. I’m not surprised at all he won Wimbledon. It’s his best surface, Djokovic’s worst and we know Nadal can be vulnerable on grass. Roger, shrugged off a bad back, got hot and rode his serve and belief across the finish line.
At the close of Wimbledon, Roger was serving unbelievably well (roof helped but it wasn’t the determining factor) and in the final he really was remarkably firm in those backhand-to-backhand exchanges with Murray. And I haven’t seen anyone volley that well in a Wimbledon final in a very, very long time. At times it was a majestic display.
It was a title Federer deserved. At 30, he turned back time proving a lot of people wrong, myself included to some extent. In the end it comes down to priorities and goals and Federer remarkably continues to achieve his.
And thanks to Federer, for the first time in many years we should have an intriguing 3-way race to the finish. Roger gets the edge in my mind. If he can steal a Masters title (or final with an Olympics title) this summer and reach at least the finals at the US Open that should be enough for him to finish No. 1 and press his colleagues. I say that because in the fall Federer, back willing, figures again to be at ease indoors while Nadal likely running on fumes and Djokovic perhaps packing it in.
So with Roger back in front, Novak/Rafa, your move?
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