Numero Uno Novak Djokovic eyes new high
Call it a trick of timing or call it coincidence. In the week that will see Roger Federer return to the professional tour at 39 after two knee surgeries and one year out in what could arguably be his final flourish at winning major titles again, Novak Djokovic has broken one of the two prominent records held by the Swiss.
Federer’s 310 weeks as the world’s No. 1 tennis player was a mythical figure; an almost unreal statistic of dominance that was largely believed to be out of bounds when he broke Pete Sampras’s 286-week record in 2012. For Djokovic, that record was not sacrosanct. In the rankings-don’t-matter age of modern tennis, the Serb had spelt out his intentions loud and clear about staying at the summit for the longer. He got to 311 weeks as No. 1 on Monday, and at 12,030 points, has a yawning gap over No. 2 Rafael Nadal (9,850).
Unlike the swift-sailing Swiss, Djokovic took his time to find the route to the top. While Federer turned No. 1 for the first time in February 2004 at the age of 22, Djokovic entered the No. 1 club in July 2011 at 24 after a couple of years of hanging around at 2 and 3 in the rankings. The two-year gap might have remained in the subsequent milestone weeks (Federer hit 300 weeks at 31; Djokovic at 33), but Djokovic has had as much flex to his stranglehold on the throne as Federer did during his kingship days.
Djokovic has enjoyed five stints as world No. 1: from July 2011 to July 2012, November 2012 to October 2013, July 2014 to November 2016, November 2018 to November 2019 and February last year till date. Federer has had six, but ended the year as No. 1 one fewer time than Djokovic’s record-tying six.
According to data on the ATP website, Djokovic boasts of a 387-53 win-loss ratio as the top-ranked player, including 39 ATP titles out of the 52 championship matches. Federer, on the other hand, had a 301-45 ratio as the world No. 1 with 35 ATP trophies from 50 title clashes. If Federer had a jaw-dropping No. 1 run of 237 weeks on the trot—which is still up for grabs—between 2004 and 2008, Djokovic had an equally improbable streak of 167 wins with a sprinkling of 17 losses during his stint from 2014 to 2016.
After securing his maiden top spot in 2011, Djokovic has only once slipped out of the top-10 rankings during 2017-2018, plummeting to 22nd in May 2018 after returning from an elbow injury that kept him out of the 2017 season post Wimbledon. It took all of five months for the Serb to get back to where he belonged, and except for a brief three-month period from November 2019 to January last year when Nadal was atop, Djokovic has kept a fair distance up there.
Federer, meanwhile, last got the feel of being No. 1 in February 2018, when, at 36, he became the oldest player to reach the top of the charts. It was his first time there since November 2012, which remains the longest gap between two No. 1 periods. But the age-defying feat lasted just three months before Nadal, and then Djokovic, took over again.
In contrast to Djokovic prioritizing being No. 1 alongside winning Grand Slams, Federer has often spoken about moving on from the ranking fixation in recent years. So has Nadal to an extent—who, by the way, is sixth on the No. 1 weeks list at 209—although the Spaniard played the 2019 ATP Finals despite injury fears just to seal the year-end top spot. Federer has been more unabashed while talking about the relevance of the top spot at this point of his career.
"For me, the ranking, at 37 years old, is no longer really the priority," Federer said in February 2019. "As long as I say I can win a Grand Slam as I did two years ago with a world ranking of 17 (Federer won the 2017 Australian Open ranked 17th), everything is in place. I prefer to be ranked 17th than third and not win a Grand Slam or tournament."
A major reason for Federer dropping out of the race is his calendar selectivity since the successful 2017 comeback. He no longer minds missing the entire clay-court swing to prepare for the grass, nor resting his body in the lead up to Grand Slams. Nadal, 34, has lately followed the pick and choose model under the growing influence of Carlos Moya in his team. Djokovic, the youngest of the trio at 33, wishes to do the same now that his No. 1 record thirst has been quenched.
“After achieving the historic No. 1 for the longest weeks at No. 1, it’s going to be a relief for me because I’m going to focus all my attention on Slams mostly,” Djokovic said after winning the Australian Open title. “When you are going for No. 1 ranking, you kind of have to be playing the entire season and you have to be playing well; you have to play all the tournaments. My goals will adapt and will shift a little bit.”
It means Djokovic will now look to recharge his batteries before entering the Slams. It means he will now look to prolong his time on the road. It means he will now look to redirect himself towards erasing another of Federer’s long-standing mark of 20 singles Grand Slam titles.
He has Nadal for company in this race. Only time, and Federer and Nadal’s more vulnerable bodies, will tell if Djokovic can break away there too.