Novak Djokovic is in something of a bind this fall, the kind of dilemma for which the promoters of the fall ATP Tour events must be very thankful. He’s in the fight of a lifetime to keep his number one ranking (almost surely a losing proposition), and to demonstrate that his great rival Rafael Nadal hasn’t re-established dominion over all of men’s tennis.
Yes, it comes down to this: the misadventures of Roger Federer and the (temporary) absence of Andy Murray have reduced what was, until a few months ago, a vaunted Big Four to a Big Two. And if Djokovic isn’t careful, that will be further diminished to a Big One, not named Djokovic.
This all means that the current No. 1 will take his game to ports like Shanghai, Paris and London with a mandate to re-assert the status he lost after he got off the another flying start in 2013 with a win at the Australian Open. In the subsequent Grand Slams, he lost to Andy Murray (Wimbledon final) and Djokovic was beaten in the other two majors by Rafael Nadal (semifinals of the French Open, final of the U.S. Open). It’s time for Djokovic to re-group.
Djokovic has four chances to earn back some of his lost heft — the three tournaments mentioned above (two of them Masters 1000 events and the other, London, the World Tour Finals) and the Davis Cup final, in which he will play host and master of ceremonies in Belgrade when the Czechs roll into town in mid-November.
Djokovic has an awful lot to defend in the next few weeks — wins in Beijing (an ATP 500), Shanghai, and at London World Tour Finals. The only place where he can actually add to his ranking points total is Paris, the Masters event where he was surprised in the second round by Sam Querrey last year. Djokovic picked up only 10 points at that one, so he could conceivably add 990 should he win that tournament, too.
Even then, it probably won’t be enough to keep Nadal from overtaking him in the rankings before the end of the year. Nadal also is entered in the Beijing 500, and if he makes the final he’s guaranteed to take over the No. 1 ranking no matter what happens in that match.
So the most realistic ambition for Djokovic for the rest of the year would be to re-establish himself as something like an equal to Nadal, thereby positioning himself for a great rivalry with Nadal for 2014 — a competition in which Djokovic ought to get off to flying start, given his outstanding record at the Australian Open. The next few months present a great opportunity in that regard, because Nadal is most vulnerable during the fall.
Djokovic could meet Nadal as many as four more times this year, so he may have chances to improve significantly on that lopsided 1-6 record in recent matches. The upcoming meetings would all be on the hard-court surface Djokovic likes best, in events where he has an outstanding record. However, Djokovic can’t afford to allow Nadal to become his Great White Whale.
Roger Federer will be back for some of those fall events, and it’s foolish to write off his chances. Federer is down to No. 5 now, and just a nose out in front of two other players who could interrupt any plans Djokovic may have to visit with Nadal in a hard-court final. No. 6 Tomas Berdych and No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro are both dangerous and at times brilliant hard-court players, and each of them has split his last two matches with Djokovic.
Djokovic’s standing with Berdych is particularly interesting as the final tournaments of the year bear down on us. The two will certainly clash in the Davis Cup final. While the men split their last two matches, Djokovic has dominated the head-to-head, 14-2. But Berdych is an unpredictable quantity; he generates enough power to overwhelm anyone, including the most gifted defenders on the tour, when he’s firing on all cylinders and free from the gag reflex.
That Davis Cup final may loom with new significance for Djokovic no matter what Nadal does, or what happens if and when Djokovic renews their rivalry. The springboard to Djokovic’s dream year of 2011 was the 2010 Davis Cup final that brought the Cup to Belgrade for the first time. Granted, there’s nothing like that breakthrough first win. But Djokovic really needs a lift, and while even a great fall capped by a Davis Cup win is unlikely to solve his Nadal problem, it might take him back to the future in a way that sets him up nicely for next year.