As the 2014 season moves toward its conclusion in late November, one of the game’s central figures is in strong pursuit of two lofty goals. First and foremost, Roger Federer is putting everything he has physically and emotionally into helping Switzerland win the Davis Cup, which they have never done. Federer has joined forces this year with Stan Wawrinka and these two formidable players have led their nation into the Cup final. The Swiss upended Italy this past weekend as Federer captured both of his singles contests on a fast indoor court. The last time Switzerland made it to the Davis Cup Final was back in 1992, long before Federer launched his professional career.
Clearly, the 33-year-old wants more than anything else to bring the Cup home to his nation. Here is a man who has won men’s record 17 majors including six Wimbledon and five U.S. Open titles. He has done it all. Many believe he is the greatest player in the storied history of tennis. When Federer heads to France with his compatriots for the Davis Cup Final late in November, it will be among the primary quests of his entire professional life.
And yet, there is another serious goal that is lingering in the back of Federer’s mind for 2014, and it is one that has not garnered nearly as much attention as his Davis Cup dreams. Federer has a decent chance of finishing 2014 back at No. 1 in the world. The last time he concluded a season at the very top of the ladder was in 2009. He did reside at No. 1 in the world for 16 weeks as recently as 2012, but the much larger achievement is to be the best player in the world at the end of the year. That is the true barometer of supremacy because the ranking reflects only events held in that particular year and nothing else; the weekly Emirates Airline ATP Rankings are based on a 52 week performance period from the previous year into the current one. In my view, becoming No. 1 on that basis is not nearly as significant as being the man at the top when a year ends, because that is a clean slate.
How and why is Federer in a position to overtake both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic and perhaps be rewarded with the No. 1 label for 2014? It seemed inconceivable that Federer could move past his two foremost rivals after Wimbledon when each of those champions had secured a 2014 major, and the Swiss had not. Then Marin Cilic came forth to capture the U.S. Open, upending Federer in the semifinals. Had Federer won the Open, it would not be difficult to understand why he would be vying for No. 1. But despite his defeat at the last major of 2014, Federer still stands a reasonably good chance of finishing this year at the top, and there are a variety of reasons for that.
Let’s start with Djokovic. Although the Serbian won Wimbledon and reached the final of Roland Garros this year, his overall results have been somewhat uneven when judged by the high standards of consistency he usually sets. Djokovic has won three Masters 1000 titles—Indian Wells, Miami and Rome. Add that to winning the biggest title in tennis, and the Serbian has won four tournaments altogether. But he deprived himself of some good point garnering opportunities by losing in the round of 16 of both Toronto and Cincinnati over the summer, and by falling in the semifinals of the U.S. Open to Kei Nishikori.
A year ago, Djokovic won every tournament he played after losing to Nadal in the U.S. Open, taking Beijing, Shanghai, Paris and the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. He was invincible in that stretch, closing the season on a 24 match winning streak. But now he has to protect all of those title runs, which will be next to impossible. He seems both exhilarated and distracted by impending fatherhood. Djokovic has a healthy lead now over Nadal and Federer in the Emirates Airline ATP Rankings that cover the past 52 weeks. The Serbian has 12,150 points. Nadal is No. 2 with 8,665 points and Federer is third with 8170.
But that is a misleading picture and should be largely ignored. The more meaningful way to look at this is through the lens of the Race to London, which includes only points earned in 2014. Here the story is very different. Djokovic still is No. 1 in the Race standings with 8150 points, but Federer is not far behind at 7020 and Nadal is third with 6645.
The Spaniard, of course, has been sorely hindered by not being able to compete since he lost in the round of 16 at Wimbledon. Nadal lost 4000 ATP Ranking points by not being able to defend his 2013 titles in Montreal, Cincinnati and the U.S. Open over the summer of 2014. Nadal would surely have held on to at least 1000 of those points and probably a lot more if he had been fit to compete.
How will it all play out across the autumn? No one knows for certain when Nadal will return to the ATP World Tour (presumably he will come back in a couple of weeks at Beijing), but there can be no doubt that it will take him time to sharpen his skills, build up his psyche and get reacquainted with match play. He will surely play well, compete hard, and give it his all wherever he goes. Nadal will make the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals a chief priority since he has never won that prestigious event, but this time of year is always a challenge for the Spaniard.
As for Djokovic, he has too much pride to allow all of his autumn titles from 2013 to slip from his grasp during the upcoming campaign, but he will surely be preoccupied by the birth of his first child and the restructuring of his life’s priorities. I wonder how confidently Djokovic and Nadal will perform this autumn after their difficulties over the summer. Both have their work cut out for them.
That leaves Federer in fascinating territory. He has enjoyed a year of remarkable consistency and deep commitment, reaching eight finals (including Wimbledon) in 2014, winning three titles (including the Western & Southern Open Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati), and becoming a semifinalist or better in three of the four majors. He has won 56 of 66 matches altogether on the ATP World Tour and has performed decidedly better than he did in 2013, when he lost in the second round of Wimbledon and the fourth round of the U.S. Open and made it to only one semifinal at a Grand Slam event. Moreover, Federer took only one tournament title in 2013—at an ATP World Tour 250 event in Halle.
Indisputably, Federer has played some stupendous tennis in 2014, and one can only marvel at his enduring physical stamina, determination and alacrity around the court at 33. He also should be commended for revamping his game this season, attacking much more frequently, serving-and-volleying selectively and with full conviction. His volleying has been first rate. But the view here is that he does not deserve to be No. 1 in the world for the year, even if he does manage to rule at the season-ending [ATP World Tour] Championships for the seventh time.
The way I look at it, it is imperative for a player to win at least one Grand Slam championship over the course of a year to be worthy of the No. 1 honor. Look back across history and there are not many instances of a year-end No. 1 not capturing at least one major.
Here are some rare cases since the ATP computer rankings were introduced in 1973 when the man who stood at No. 1 did not record a major championship win. In 1975, Jimmy Connors won nine tournaments and reached three major finals, did not win a Grand Slam event, and yet he was No. 1---undeservedly in my view; Arthur Ashe—who toppled Connors in the Wimbledon final—should have been ranked No. 1, and was accorded that honor by many worldwide authorities. In 1977, Connors again was ranked No. 1 for the year. He lost to Bjorn Borg in the Wimbledon final and Guillermo Vilas in the U.S. Open final, and did not take a major title. Either Vilas or Borg---Vilas in my judgment—should have been the No. 1 ranked player for that season, but it went to Connors on the ATP computer. Five years later, in 1982, Connors was victorious at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and was universally acknowledged as the greatest player in the game, but John McEnroe was ranked No. 1 on the computer despite not securing a major in that campaign.
That, however, was the last year when a man who had not won a major stood at No. 1 on the ATP computer at the end of the season. And yet, 32 years later, Federer just might establish himself as the official year-end No. 1 player without the benefit of a Grand Slam singles title. Some will argue that he would belong at the top because he worked hard, played fair, and fared well in every major except for Roland Garros, where he lost in the round of 16 to Ernests Gulbis. After all, it is not his problem that Djokovic and Nadal have been beset by problems.
I argue otherwise. To finish a year as the world champion of the sport, a player must win one or more of the majors. Let’s remember some of those seasons in recent memory among the women when they had year-end No. 1 players on the WTA computer who had not fully validated their status with a major title: Martina Hingis in 2000, Lindsay Davenport (2001, 2004 and 2005), Jelena Jankovic in 2008, and Caroline Wozniacki in 2010 and 2011. In an ideal world, that was not the way it should have been.
If Federer concludes this season as his sport’s preeminent player in the rankings, it would stir the embers of debate among all of us. The ATP ranking system is not to be blamed; in fact, it is first rate. The Grand Slam events are given the clout they thoroughly command, with 2000 points awarded to every champion at the four majors. Masters 1000 victors earn 1000 points for capturing those events, fittingly so. But the fact remains that Federer would be receiving an honor he would not really deserve; he would be No. 1 to some extent by default. He would be reclaiming the top spot through an odd set of occurrences. He lost to Nadal in the semifinals of the Australian Open, was defeated by Djokovic in a five set Wimbledon final, and could not survive in the penultimate round of the U.S. Open. He took none of the four majors. That record is not worthy of No. 1 status.
Conversely, Federer leading Switzerland to a Davis Cup triumph in November would be a great thing for him, very good for the game, and laudatory in every way. He has made himself available for all four rounds. It was surely an arduous task to be ready for the semifinal against Italy less than a week after losing in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. But he managed to cast aside Simone Bolelli and Fabio Fognini without dropping a set, or losing his serve. In the Davis Cup Final, he will confront Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and another tough Frenchman in singles (conceivably Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils or Gilles Simon), and probably join Wawrinka for the doubles assignment. He will report for duty the weekend after competing in the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, and that will be another rugged assignment.
In the final analysis, Federer should join other all-time greats like Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Nadal, Djokovic and Bjorn Borg who all have celebrated the singular experience of leading their country to victory in the Davis Cup. Federer very much belongs in that elite company, and the reward would be entirely fitting. He could wear that achievement proudly on his lapel, knowing he had totally earned it. But finishing this year at No. 1 would be too heavily determined by the vulnerabilities of his two chief rivals rather than his own supremacy.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.
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