Examining the year 2019 in men’s tennis, two competitors have towered above all the rest when it has mattered the most. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic split the four major championships between them.
The Spaniard was victorious at the French Open for the 12th time and also claimed his fourth US Open crown in New York. Meanwhile, the Serbian triumphed at the Australian Open, securing a seventh title in the land “Down Under”. In July, he capped his year in many ways by winning a fifth Wimbledon title. The world’s top two players were the pace setters of the sport, and this pair of estimable champions moved closer to Roger Federer in the battle for historical supremacy at the Grand Slam Championships with their dominance. Now Nadal stands only one behind the leader Federer with his 19 majors, while Djokovic has collected 16.
Yet, neither Nadal nor Djokovic is content at the moment. They are striving to conclude the 2019 season as the top ranked player in the ATP rankings. Finishing a year at No. 1 in the world is one of the highest honors in all of tennis. Since the official computer rankings were established in 1973, Pete Sampras holds the record by ending six seasons (1993-98) as the best in his profession. Tied for second place are Jimmy Connors, Djokovic and Federer, with all three finishing five years at No. 1. And Nadal has realized that extraordinary feat four times—2008, 2010, 2013 and 2017.
Now Nadal and Djokovic have two big tournaments left on their 2019 agendas that will determine who stands alone at the top for this season. They are both planning to participate in the Rolex Paris Masters starting on October 28 and will then compete in the season-ending ATP Finals in London after a one-week break. Many followers of the sport are focused on the fact that Nadal will move past Djokovic on November 4 and take over, at least temporarily, the No. 1 ranking.
But their larger quest is to achieve the year-end No. 1 spot, and those in the cognoscenti realize that the way to follow that chase is to look at the ATP Race to London—which counts points amassed strictly in this calendar year, while the ATP Rankings reflect a 52-week cycle. In the Race to London, Nadal is in a commanding position with 9225 points while Djokovic has accumulated 7945. That means the Spaniard has a healthy 1280-point lead. Djokovic could collect 1000 points if he wins in Paris and another 1500 if he goes unbeaten in the eight-man, round-robin event at London. But even a sweep of those two prestigious tournaments and picking up 2500 points might not be enough for him to overcome Nadal if the Spanish southpaw fares well in both cities.
No matter which man prevails, the historical consequences are considerable. Djokovic would achieve a sixth season-ending finish at No. 1 and would tie Sampras. That would be a monumental feat. But in the more likely scenario that Nadal succeeds in becoming the preeminent player for the year, he would force a three-way tie for second with Federer and Djokovic.
Former Top-5 player Brad Gilbert believes Nadal has the best inside track to secure the honor. Gilbert reached a career-high of No. 4 in the world in 1990, coached three players who have been ranked No. 1 in the world—Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray—and has frequently been in the broadcast booth for ESPN at the majors and ATP Finals. He says, “About a week ago after Djokovic had won in Tokyo, I would have told you that he would win Shanghai and then he would have been less than 500 points behind Rafa. I would have said then it would be a massive advantage for Djoker. But Djoker lost in the quarters in Shanghai and now with Rafa ahead by 1280, he has got a way better shot at it.”
Most close followers of the game have heard Djokovic openly proclaim his desire to chase records both at the majors and in the rankings, while Nadal downplays his historical objectives. It seems as if Djokovic is more driven to conclude this year at No. 1 and raise his historical stock in the process, but that may not be the case. The world No. 1 is simply more willing to let his views be known, while the world No. 2 prefers to be more guarded about his highest pursuits.
As Gilbert points out, “Nadal doesn’t change his schedule or chase points or anything like that. I don’t think that even now he is thinking about the year-end No. 1. And maybe that is the best of Rafa in that he doesn’t think ahead and only focusses on the next match. He hates it when people talk about what he might win. He is very uncomfortable with that. Djoker is more comfortable talking about passing Fed or getting the most years at No. 1.”
Historically, the player who has been ahead in the Race after the US Open has almost always maintained the lead and wrapped up the season at No. 1 in the world. From 2008-2018, there have been only two years when the man in front following the US Open has not ended up on top. In 2016, Djokovic was overtaken by Murray despite leading by more than 2000 points after Flushing Meadows, and last year Nadal did not play after New York and his near 2000 point-lead over Djokovic disappeared.
Neutral observers are hoping it stays close in the points race between Nadal and Djokovic and the two go right down to the wire this year, with a dream ending in London pitting the two icons against each other in the final. That happened three years ago when Murray toppled Djokovic in the title round clash at the ATP Finals to finish that year as the top-ranked player, establishing himself as the only player outside the Big 3 in the past 16 years to finish a season at No. 1. Murray played remarkably well in that eagerly anticipated contest but Djokovic was jittery and off form.
Gilbert was there doing commentary on that match. He recalls, “It was unbelievable to sit courtside for that match and see it all unfold. You were hoping for a 7-6 in the third match but Murray rolled Djoker. That was the only bummer. You hope with so much at stake that you get a great match. If Nadal and Djokovic get to the final this year, you don’t want to see a match like their final at the Australian Open. That match was the best I have seen anybody play at courtside. When Novak is at that level on that type of surface he is unbeatable.”
And yet, it is entirely possible that a Nadal-Djokovic appointment in the final of London would not settle the No. 1 ranking for the year. As Gilbert says, “I would assume if Rafa gets to the final in London, he probably would have No. 1 clinched. There are a lot of variables, like maybe if Rafa loses early in Paris. Indoors you always feel a little surprised if Djokovic doesn’t win. So if they do meet in London, it is a really low bouncing court and kind of slow. It is not an ideal court for Rafa, but he might need to only reach a semi or a final to guarantee himself No. 1.”
Along with many other authorities, Gilbert believes it would be fitting if Nadal manages to be the leading player at the end of this season to place himself in a tie with his two luminous rivals. All three would then have celebrated five years atop the rankings, and symmetrically that makes sense. As Gilbert says, “There will be a massive swing. Either Novak ties Pete with six or all three guys will have five. Fed, Djoker and Rafa with five each would be apropos I guess. You think about all of their accolades and if they were tied on something this important that would be pretty crazy.”
That is surely the case. When I asked Jim Courier the other day how he felt about finishing 1992 as the No. 1 player in the world, he said, “Year-end No. 1 is a significant milestone and I am proud to have achieved it. It is an important part of a player’s history and biography.”
And yet, when asked whether it would be more important for Djokovic to finish this year at No. 1 or to eventually pass Federer for most weeks at the top, Courier responds with clarity. He says, “I think the more important No. 1 metric when all is said and done will be total weeks at No. 1 and Novak has a good chance to be the all-time leader.”
That is a fascinating and debatable point. Some experts are in accord with Courier but others believe year-end supremacy is a more accurate measuring stick of greatness. Federer has spent 310 weeks at No. 1. Sampras is second at 286 weeks and Djokovic recently moved past Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl into third place with 273. Nadal is sixth at 196. Surely Djokovic has a reasonably good chance to eventually surpass Sampras and Federer, but his immediate concern is to be the sport’s top player for 2019.
“It’s funny,” mussed Gilbert, “but back in the day, ending the year at No. 1 might have been the most significant achievement for the top players. In the late seventies and eighties, finishing at No. 1 seemed to be as big a deal as anything. And I think it is very significant now that Rafa could tie Djoker and Fed and these three guys would be tied for second with Connors with their five years ending at No 1. I promise you we will never see anything close to this in our lifetimes.”