Competing for the first time since his final-round loss to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros 16 days ago, Novak Djokovic opened his campaign for the Erste Bank Open title in Vienna with a 7-6 (6), 6-3 triumph over Filip Krajinovic. Djokovic, who had not played in Vienna since he won its tournament 13 years ago, had to fight hard to overcome his countryman, rallying from 3-5 down in the opening set and saving a set point in the tiebreak before moving inexorably across the finish line.

Why is Djokovic appearing in this ATP 500 event when it was not originally on his schedule? What is the reason he is not going to defend his Rolex Paris Masters 1000 title next week?

The answers are based on mathematics, and the revised ranking system the ATP has installed in the wake of the pandemic. Djokovic can add as many as 500 points to his season total this week by winning Vienna; a title there would ensure he finishes the season at No. 1. And since he will automatically keep the 1,000 ranking points he garnered in Paris last autumn—the tour is allowing players to keep their best showing from post-pandemic tournaments this year, so as to not penalize anyone for opting out—he has nothing to gain by making the trip. Djokovic sorely wants to finish the year at No. 1 for the sixth time—only Pete Sampras can say the same, since the official ATP rankings were introduced in 1973. The prodigious American realized that considerable feat from 1993-98.

But Djokovic would set himself apart from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with the achievement. The Swiss and the Spaniard have both finished five total years at No. 1.

Heading into Vienna, Djokovic held a lead of 1,890 points over Nadal in the rankings. If Djokovic is able to prevail this week in Vienna, he would expand his lead to 2,390 points. Nadal can only pick up a maximum number of 2,140 points if he wins both Paris and the Nitto ATP Finals in London; the dynamic southpaw has never won either of those tournaments. But Nadal won two round-robin matches last year in London while Djokovic was victorious in only one, so he will drop 400 points, while Djokovic drops only 200.


Eye on the prize: Novak Djokovic closes in another year-end No. 1 rank

Eye on the prize: Novak Djokovic closes in another year-end No. 1 rank

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Add it all up, and unless Nadal elects to play the ATP 250 tournament in Sofia the week after Paris—and thus plays three consecutive weeks in a late-season blitz—the Serbian will lock up the year-end No. 1 spot by securing his 82nd career singles title Sunday in Vienna. Even if he does not pull off that feat, Djokovic will have such a big lead heading into London that he might need only one round-robin win—or perhaps none at all.

Jim Courier, who knows what it takes to stand alone at the top at season's end, had some thoughts on Djokovic’s historic bid. The four-time Grand Slam champion preceded Sampras in finishing No. 1, back in 1992. That season Courier won two of the four majors, and 69 of 87 matches.

“When evaluating the all-time greats, there can be a tendency to overvalue singles majors won,” says Courier, when asked how he would rate Djokovic’s achievement of a sixth year-end No. 1 ranking. “Weeks at No. 1, as well as year-end No. 1 finishes, are also very significant aspects of evaluating all-time greats from my perspective.”

How would Courier compare Djokovic’s accomplishment to Sampras’ six consecutive seasons of preeminence?

“Pete’s six consecutive years is incredible and required not only supreme skill but also physical and mental consistency,” Courier says. “Novak’s ability to carve out his own history while playing alongside Federer and Nadal is every bit as difficult and hard to comprehend as Pete’s six years in a row.”

Does Courier believe Djokovic could end perhaps two or three more years at No. 1, before he puts the racquet down for good?

“I think he can be No. 1 for much longer if he stays focused and healthy,” he says. “There are only two things that seem likely to prevent him from adding more weeks and years at No. 1; his health and Nadal.”

Speaking from personal experience about the depth of difficulty to wrap up a long year wearing the robe of No. 1, Courier says, “Being a year-end No. 1 is difficult at any time, and it’s an achievement I look back on with great pride. There’s no doubt that Novak has been the dominant force in men’s tennis again this season. The numbers don’t lie.”

Eye on the prize: Novak Djokovic closes in another year-end No. 1 rank

Eye on the prize: Novak Djokovic closes in another year-end No. 1 rank


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That is the fundamental truth. The 2020 season has been a significantly abbreviated campaign for everyone. But Djokovic has indeed set the pace, winning his eighth Australian Open title, taking the tournament in Doha, claiming Masters 1000 titles in Rome and Cincinnati, and reaching the final of Roland Garros. By virtue of his win over Krajinovic in Vienna, Djokovic has raised his match record for the year to 38-2. That brand of consistency has put Djokovic in a commanding position to realize his goal of completing 2020 as the best player in the world.

“I have an opportunity to win new extra points in the race to finish the season at No. 1,” Djokovic said before taking the court on Tuesday. “The historic race for No. 1 is one of the big reasons why I flew to Vienna. I’m going to try to win as many matches as possible. I know I need to end up No. 1 in the world for this season and hopefully I will be able to do that. It is one of my main goals.”

Djokovic’s comment on “the historic race for No. 1” was a clear reference to the all-time leaders for total weeks—rather than years—atop the sport. He currently stands in second place behind Federer, with 292 weeks. The Swiss held the No. 1 post for 310 weeks. So if Djokovic can remain at No. 1 through this season, he would be poised to surpass Federer in the early stages of 2021.

But the only way for Djokovic to hit his primary targets it to take them one by one. London will be his last tournament of 2020, and the Serbian would like nothing more than to capture the season-ending title for a sixth time. If the 33-year-old has his way, the year-end No. 1 ranking will already be in his collection, and then Djokovic can start honing in on Federer’s record of weeks spent at No. 1.

Djokovic could have already surpassed Federer had it not been for another one of his longtime rivals, Andy Murray. In 2016, the year-end No. 1 came down to one match—Murray versus Djokovic, at the ATP Finals—and the British warrior prevailed. Then, last year, Djokovic had a chance to end the season at No. 1 coming into London, but surprisingly he did not make it out of the round-robin stage, and Nadal deservedly took the top honor.

Now Djokovic is unswervingly determined to reclaim his old residence. It is his sole priority at the moment. To say that Djokovic is playing predominantly for history is not hyperbolic; it is simply a fact.