The True Four

by: Peter Bodo | October 07, 2011

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Pic by Pete Bodo

The other day I wrote about Andy Murray and described him as I so often do, as basically the fourth man in the ruling quartet in the ATP. The most junior member of this elite partnership between rivals. This has been pretty much the pattern for a few years now. 

Admittedly, Murray climbed as high as No. 2 (in August of 2009), but he lasted in that position for just three weeks. The last time he even qualified as the “third wheel” by inserting himself into the Rafael Nadal vs.  Roger Federer rivalry was way back in February of last year, and that spell at No. 3 was even shorter—two weeks to be exact.

But guess what? Murray is the de facto No. 3 on the ATP tour for 2011, although there’s a more interesting way to frame the situation: Roger Federer has quietly slipped to No. 4 in the ATP’s Year-to-Date rankings, even if he maintains his No. 3 position in the “official” rankings. The disparity exists because the rankings are still a rolling entity, reflecting performance over a 12-month period, with the points a player earns any given week replacing those he earned during the same week 12 months earlier.

The YTD Singles Rankings, or “Battle for London” (where the ATP World Tour Finals will take place) gives a more accurate, up-to-the-minute picture of the hierarchy. In that ranking Murray is a clear no. 3. With 5,700 points, Murray has a 515-ranking point lead over No. 4 Federer. That’s just 75 fewer points than a player earns for losing a Masters Series final.

The upcoming Shanghai Masters will provide a sharp comment on this situation. Last year, Murray toppled Federer in that final. This year, Federer isn’t even playing. Thus, he’ll automatically take that 600 point hit. So even though Murray is defending the maximum 1000 points, it’s unlikely that Federer will win back a significant amount of lost ground. Murray will still lead Federer in the YTD rankings even if he’s upset in the first round. 

One of the running debates in tennis is whether or not the rankings ought to be rolling, or more like a race with each player starting with a clean slate at the start of the year. This isn’t the place to rekindle that argument; suffice it to say that the rankings are really ratings, most useful for seeding purposes. A race provides a better snapshot of how a year is going.

This is a particularly interesting issue at this moment because of where Federer stands, which is at a crossroads. And I’m not referring to the fact that he just turned 30, although that has a little something to do with it. Personally, I think he’s quietly come to the conclusion that he doesn’t need to worry about where he ends up in the rankings, or how many points he’s defending.

That’s not exactly stop-the-presses news. Federer himself has often said that he plays for the major titles, not the rankings or prize money. But the key thing is that he now has no reason whatsoever to care about those things, or allow them to influence his decision-making. For one thing that seems certain now is that Federer no longer appears to have a chance at adding a high-value item to his resume—most weeks at no. 1. 

Does anyone else find it amazing that Federer fell only one lousy, stinking, seven-day week short of Pete Sampras’s record (286 weeks at the top)? This is one of the greatest of records in the sport, and the only other towering one that eluded Federer was most consecutive years at No. 1. Sampras owns that distinction, too, with six straight years in the throne room.

Federer’s thinking will also be shaped by the fact that he had what can only be called a poor year, at least by standards he established for himself. Sure, age has something to do with that, as does Novak Djokovic. But you can’t explain away some of the disappointments. 

Federer failed to win at least one Grand Slam this year for the first time in nine years, or since the year he won his first major at Wimbledon (2003). Still, his record in the majors was the stuff of which most ATP pros can only dream. He was in two semifinals (Australian and U.S. Opens), where he lost to the eventual champion and a man putting together one of the greatest years in tennis history, Djokovic.

Federer ended that selfsame Djokovic’s remarkable winning streak (43 matches) in the French Open semifinals, although he would go on to lose the championship match to his nemesis, Nadal (who, at the time, was still the No. 1 player). The quarterfinal loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon (where Federer led the Frenchman two sets to none) was undoubtedly painful, and that slip-up, along with Federer’s failure to convert either of the two match points he held against Djokovic in the U.S. Open semi—with Federer serving, no less—may end up looking like career turning points.

But beyond that, there’s a reason that Federer’s solid results if somewhat disappointing performances weren’t enough to keep him right in the mix with Nadal and Djokovic. Federer has won just one tournament so far in 2011, and that was an ATP 250 in Doha, where the lure of appearance money was too much for him to resist. The highest ranked player he beat there was No. 13 Tsonga.

Murray, by contrast, had an almost luridly up-and-down year, yet he managed to play a final and three semis at the majors, losing to the winner of the tournament in Australia and the French Open (Djokovic and Nadal respectively) and the losing finalist Nadal at the other two majors. He also won a Masters 1000 (Cincinnati) and two ATP 250s. 

Right now, with Murray on an 18-1 tear since mid-August, it seems almost certain that he’ll end the year at No. 3, with Federer dropping back to No. 4. It’s unlikely that will overly trouble Federer, but it will certainly provide a reality check and yet another good reason for Federer to do everything in his power to make the most of the diminishing number of opportunities he’s likely to get.

And I hope he always reminds himself that he doesn’t owe anyone anything.

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