Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts during his men’s singles final match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia on Day Fifteen of the 2013 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 9, 2013 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for the USTA)
As the season readies itself for a grand finale, an air of inevitability has taken rein over the ATP World Tour. Rafael Nadal is closing in on his prey like a hungry tiger, so close that his nostrils might already be filled with the scent of Novak Djokovic.
There is plenty of tennis before the tour reaches the O2 arena in London later this November, but the Serbian can probably do no more than surrender to the enveloping shadow of Nadal before being usurped from his long held perch at the top of the rankings. After more than a decade on the circuit, Nadal probably cares less about the number and far more about the thrill of hunting down the man that haunted him into a state of abject misery.
Jog your memory back to the Indian Wells masters in 2011 and you will recollect the beginning of a phase where Djokovic trumped Nadal seven times on the run, including three straight Grand Slam finals to establish himself as the top dog in the game.
It appeared that the Serbian had finally unlocked the elusive answers to the Spaniard’s web of tricks. But the ever resilient Nadal worked away furiously to turn the tide and ride into the sunshine again with single minded determination. Since his loss at Melbourne in 2012, Nadal has won six of their seven encounters leading up to the US Open title a couple of weeks ago.
The thrill of the hunt must be even more pronounced for Nadal, considering that the Majorcan was forced to surrender the top rank to Djokovic after losing in the finals at Wimbledon 2011. As of Monday this week, Djokovic has a meagre 260 point lead over the rampant bull from Manacor. The bad news for the Serbian just gets worse when he reminisces his successful strides from the end of season pickings last year. While Nadal was nursing his knee to an incredible recovery, Djokovic was busy racking up the results during the final leg of 2012.
The world No.1 finished with a flourish, clinching titles at Beijing, Shanghai and the Tour Finals in London to underline his dominance. At that stage, it wasn’t even clear when and where Nadal might return – it was meant to be Doha, then the Australian Open, but there was only a loud moan of concern when the Spaniard pronounced himself ill due to a lingering stomach virus. And then came the comeback that some people have deemed fit enough to call a miracle, including Nadal himself. The miracle has propelled Nadal into an orbit where he is soaring all by himself.
Djokovic (11,120 points) has a marginal lead over Nadal (10,860), but he is climbing a steep mountain. The Serbian needs to defend a staggering 3,010 points through the ATP World Tour Finals in London, and even if he does just as well as last year, he will only be able to reinstate the points that will drop off his sheet week after week. Nadal’s situation is the exact opposite of his opponent – having watched much of the hard court season on television, the Spaniard has scheduled two 500 series events and two Masters series events, before the grand finale in London.
The schedule for Nadal gives him access to 4,500 points through November, allowing him the freedom needed to explore the limits of his game as he seeks to distance himself from his nearest competitors. In fact, Nadal (11,015) already has nearly three thousand points on Djokovic (8,110) in the race to London.
The points in the race capture performances during the calendar year, unlike the ATP ranking, which is based on performances from the past twelve months. Even as Djokovic prepares to vacate his throne, Nadal is seeking to add to his legendary season during which he has already won 10 titles on everything from European clay to American hard courts.
Unlike Nadal, Djokovic hasn’t accepted to play at the Swiss Indoors in Basel. The one place where the Serbian could ask for a little mercy is the BNP Paribas Masters – he only has ten points from his round of 32 loss to Sam Querrey last year. But the hunt may not even last that long.
The two are scheduled to play at Beijing toward the end of September, an ATP World Tour 500 event. Djokovic is the defending champion there and will need to make at least the finals to stave off the inevitable, if only for a few weeks. However, if the Serbian loses in the semis or earlier and Nadal takes the title, he will walk away with the number one ranking too.
No matter where he does it, Nadal will in all likelihood end the year as the top man in tennis. When that happens, he will have crowned one of the finest comeback seasons in the history of tennis, earning a place among the gilded pages that recount the storied efforts of players such as Thomas Muster and Monica Seles.