- What the Deuce
Djokovic's No. 1 ranking almost goneOctober 2, 2013
It cannot be easy being the lame-duck world No. 1. No matter what he does, barring a miracle, Novak Djokovic is going to get passed by Rafael Nadal as early as this week at the China Open. In order for Djokovic to hang on to his top ranking, he needs to win Beijing, and Nadal needs to succumb before the final.
Whatever happens, it has been a miraculous run for Djokovic, who this week became the ninth player to hold the top ranking for 100 weeks. His reign started on July 4 two years ago - the day after winning the tournament he cherishes more than any other, Wimbledon. But though Djokovic likely won't end 2013 as the tour's top tail-wagger, what's to stop him from snaring it once again next season?
Good question. Let's have a look, shall we?
First and foremost, we do not know what the point disparity will be between Nadal and Djokovic at the end of 2013, of course. There are a handful of point-heavy events left this season, including two Masters 1000s and the ATP World Tour Finals. But we do know this: Djokovic has only one player to contend with when you really think about it. You probably know him by now. It's that Nadal guy.
Djoker's other contemporaries have far too much ground to make up before they could challenge for the No. 1 ranking anytime soon.
Since Nadal's comeback he has been as healthy as he has been in years - and he has crushed the tour. Yes, the entire tour. Nadal (predictably) won the French Open, and after a Wimbledon slip-up, he won 21 straight hard-court matches, including the US Open.
Djokovic's biggest nemesis is playing bigger, better and with more moxie than he ever has. So that could be a problem.
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But there's the Aussie Open, which begins in little more than three months. Djokovic has owned Melbourne, winning the title four times, including the past two seasons. As one of the fittest players on tour, the grind Down Under might be the most arduous of any slam. Djokovic will take that challenge, even against Nadal.
Nadal didn't play the Australian Open last season, which means he could procure up to 2,000 more points at the tournament's end in 2014; this compared to Djokovic, who can't build on his total at all. Ah, the price of winning.
At least for the first couple of months of 2014, expect Nadal to increase his lead over Djokovic, even if the Serb fares better than Nadal in Australia.
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When the spring hard-court season begins, both Nadal and Djokovic should be playing. This is all speculation at this point, but there are rumours Nadal won't play at Indian Wells or Miami, which are back-to-back Masters 1000 events. With his history of knee ailments, it's a lot to ask of him - for any player, in fact. Djokovic lost in the semis in California and then in the round of 16 in Miami. So he has potential points to gain.
Nadal made his return to hard courts in Indian Wells in 2013 and, yes, he won the event, just when all the pundits had pigeonholed him once again as a clay specialist. After all, who wants to pound on the unforgiving cement with bad knees? But the thing about pundits is that punditry isn't always their best attribute. Rafa has dominated hard courts with four titles this season, which is more than any other player - except Andy Murray - has on all surfaces combined. So there's that.
Djokovic could close the gap if he plays both Indian Wells and Miami and is successful at them. Oh, and if Nadal doesn't play one or both or he is unsuccessful at them.
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And then, of course, the clay-court season rolls around, and by now, you're probably aware of who the favourite will be, so there is no need to mention his name. R.A.F.A.
After Indian Wells, Nadal navigated his way to the dirt and finished runner-up in Monte Carlo to Djokovic, but then won Barcelona for the eighth time, Madrid for the third time, Rome for the seventh time and the French Open for, yes, the eighth time. This means two things: 1. Rafa is as good as advertised; and 2. This will be Djokovic's best shot to start scratching his way back to the pinnacle of the game's rankings.
The biggest guarantee in all of tennis is Nadal on clay. Chances of him replicating 2013 are pretty good. Djokovic could make up a good amount of points in Madrid, where he lost to Grigor Dimitrov in the second round. If Djokovic wins, that's 990 additional points. With titles in Rome and Paris in 2014, he has the potential to garner additional 2,100 points.
Djokovic can start slowly plugging away at what will be a pretty significant gulf between the two by this time, and this is assuming the Serb plays well, and consistently well, for the long, taxing clay season.
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Nadal has strung together one of the great summers we've ever seen. Two Masters titles and the US Open. That also means he has secured every possible point he could get his racket on. That also means for the first time in the 2014 season, Nadal will be the one with the most to lose.
Djokovic has to win - not just play well - if he wants to start making another run at the No. 1 ranking. And the summer season is unpredictable, and Djokovic is certainly not a guarantee to triumph at any of these tournaments. He lost in the semis at Montreal (to Nadal), the quarters at Cincinnati and the final at the US Open (to Nadal) in 2013. That won't be good enough next year.
We've certainly simplified this, but the bottom line is this: Nadal is going to have a portly lead in points by the time the summer hard-court season begins next season. And it's also worth mentioning than because Nadal lost in the opening round of Wimbledon, and Djokovic reached the final, the Spaniard can pad his lead even more.
The reality is that because Nadal has so many more points he can acquire, it's going to take a massive effort and a lot of luck for Djokovic to take back the No. 1 ranking by next season's end.
As for 2015… Well, we will get to that around this time next year.
Matt Wilansky is tennis editor of ESPN.com