Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of today’s stunning upset of top-ranked Novak Djokovic by Roger Federer is that it raises a question that simply did not seem tenable earlier this year, when Roger Federer was ranked No. 8 in the world — nor, for that matter, for almost the last half a decade.

Can Federer take the prestigious year-end No. 1 ranking?

That question popped as lively as a Federer first serve in the wake of today’s 6-4, 6-4 win over Djokovic. The result was built upon Federer’s willingness to take his chances with an aggressive, attacking game that neutralized Djokovic’s superb defensive baseline play. Federer put a shade over 70 percent of his first serves into play (a critical statistic, for it enabled him to set the tone for his service points) and he won an excellent 62 percent of his second serve points (13 of 21). He also hit 35 winners and eight aces.

But here’s the most significant stat of them all: Federer attacked the net 35 times, and won 20 of those points. Perhaps none was more important than the last of them, which ought to remain the lingering symbol of this match. Struggling with nerves to serve out the match, he ended it by attacking the Djokovic backhand. He hit an excellent backhand volley crosscourt, but Djokovic ran it down and went down the line with the forehand; Federer hit another superb, heavily sliced backhand volley back the other way to end the match on a clean winner. It is a shot Federer has always had, that heavy backhand sliced volley; it’s about time he trotted it out for all to see with a little more frequency.

This was a tactical win, and proof that Federer has made a critical transition that even some great players never master. Once he was a typically confident, arrogant champion who would bring the game he’s most comfortable playing to any match and dare an opponent to match it. Lately, he’s become more like a savvy and wise veteran willing to make adjustments in his game or strategy, on the assumption that the old approach just isn’t good enough any more against players of a certain caliber.

Fed Expressed

Fed Expressed

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But it would be a mistake to see this embrace of a different game as simply a reaction to meeting an outstanding rallier like Djokovic. It’s part of a larger pattern as Federer struggles with the realities of today’s fierce, power-based baseline game, as well as the need to conserve the energy stores in his 33-year old body.

“I think I did not play too bad,” said Djokovic, who saw a 28-match winning streak in China come crashing down (he was the defending champion for the second consecutive year in Shanghai, and had just won his third straight Beijing title). “It's just that he played everything he wanted to play. He played the perfect match. I think he's going to tell you how he felt, but that's how I felt he played. He played an amazing match.”

“I’m unbelievably happy with the way it went,” the winner said. “There was nothing in my game today that wasn’t working.”

Alright. But can Federer really finish the year at No. 1, a feat that would overshadow the fact that he hasn’t won a Grand Slam event since the summer of 2012?

Federer embarked on the week with 8,170 points in the ATP Rankings — well behind his rival’s 12,150 (Federer trails Djokovic by just 1,390 points in the Race to London Standings after today's win). On Monday, Djokovic’s total will take a 640 point hit (the difference between his Shanghai title last year, worth 1,000 points, and his semifinal loss this year), while Federer’s will increase by at least 510 points (and as much as 910 points, should he defeat Gilles Simon in tomorrow’s final). So let’s suppose Federer wins Shanghai. By Monday, as last year’s point totals are replaced by last week’s, he will still face a significant gap in the rankings, but would be within a

mere 160 points of Djokovic (7,850 to 8,010) in the Race. And Federer has more chances to make up ground on faster indoor tracks.
Fed Expressed

Fed Expressed

Federer has usually enjoyed excellent results when the tour moves back to Europe from Asia, and he’s got three more events on the docket — Basel, the Paris Indoors, and the ATP World Tour Finals — before leading Switzerland in the Davis Cup final against France. Federer will be defending 300 finalist points in Basel, 360 semifinalist points at the Paris Masters, and and 400 points accrued through his semifinal loss to Rafael Nadal at the grand finale in London. He has room for improvement, albeit not very much. But the payoff for even a little improvement at the finals weekend level is substantial.

Djokovic has no chance to add to his total as things now stand. He’s only entered in two more tournaments this year, Paris and the WTF. He won both last year, so he can’t add points. He could request a wild card into any of the five ATP 250 and ATP 500 events remaining before Paris. Wouldn’t it be a hoot if Djokovic asked for a wild card into  Federer’s hometown championships of Basel (an ATP 500 event) — and wouldn’t it be even funnier if the Swiss, hoping to protect the chances of their local hero, turned him down?

The upshot here is that Djokovic cannot add to his present points total without adding a tournament and winning more matches, while Federer can earn nearly 3,000 more points by maximizing his performance in the upcoming events on his schedule.

There’s another less quantifiable factor in play here. Djokovic and his wife Jelena are expecting their first child soon (they haven’t announced an official due-date, but the most educated guess is for sometime in November). The distraction of the final countdown (never mind an early arrival) surely will play some role in Djokovic’s attitude and motivation — not exactly the best conditions under which to take on the mission of repeating as champion of both Paris and the WTF.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ve predicated most of this scenario on Federer winning Shanghai not  because I’m convinced he will beat Simon, but to demonstrate how much is at stake now for the two top players. In fact, I think Simon will take a lot of beating in the final, but we’ve had enough speculation for one day.