Novak Djokovic has it. Rafael Nadal has his eyes on it again. Roger Federer wants it back and Andy Murray thinks he can get it. The stunning weekend of tennis at the Australian Open is still fresh in the mind but what happens over the next couple of months could go a long way to deciding the destination of the world number one ranking.
Now with Djokovic sitting pretty at the top and seemingly as unstoppable as he was in the first nine months of last year, it might seem a little optimistic to think that there will actually be a battle for it all.
But one thing that may have gone overlooked in Melbourne is that the gap between Djokovic and Nadal actually closed after the fortnight, because the Spaniard improved on his quarter-final showing from 2011.
So now there is a “mere” 2,800 points or so between the top two and because of the way the ranking system works, if Djokovic doesn’t earn as many points in the next few months as he did in 2011, then he’ll start to fall.
Since he won Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome and Belgrade, it’s not going to be easy to stay clear and even though Nadal was beaten in the final of four of those events by Djokovic, he will still have the chance to gain.
So too Federer, who did not reach a final in 2011 until the French Open and Murray, who earned almost no points in Indian Wells and Miami.
In the men’s game, unless you win absolutely everything else, being number one usually comes with winning at least one grand slam title so Nadal, Federer and Murray will almost certainly need to do that.
No one enjoys all the trappings of being number one as much as Federer and he believes he can get back there. But Ivan Ljubicic, one of the Swiss’s closest friends on tour, does not think that at 30, it’s possible.
The Croat said the need for the very top players to recharge their batteries by taking the odd break during the season means that it’s unlikely that Federer will enter the number of tournaments required to earn enough points to make it to the top.
“One thing the top players should realise is that nobody’s going to give them points for free,” he told The Tennis Space. “This is a brutal sport and that’s the way it should be.
“That’s the reason why Roger will never be number one (again) in my opinion. He still might win slams. He used his best times in the best possible way and I don’t think he should be moaning now: ‘I wish I could be number one at 35’. That cannot happen.”
And what of Murray? It was back in August last year, having won the Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati, that the Scot mentioned the number one ranking as a realistic target and he repeated his feelings after going so close to beating Djokovic in Melbourne. “Being number one is one of my goals this year and I will try my best to do it,” he said.
Instead of thinking of the year in January-December terms, Murray reasons that if he performs as well or better than everyone for the 12 months from that Cincinnati triumph then he will be number one.
The logic is flawless and the figures actually make for good reading. Since and including the points won in Cincinnati, here are the respective totals earned by the top four:
Nadal, doubtless, will start mopping up his usual points on clay and by about May there could be very little between any of the top four. As Djokovic goes for the “Novak slam” at the French Open, we could also have a nice battle for the number one spot too.
It is interesting to note who is and who isn’t playing for their countries in the Davis Cup first round ties next weekend. Djokovic, Nadal and Murray have all cried off – Nadal says he’s not playing at all this year – but Federer is leading Switzerland against the USA.
Now Federer has dipped in and out of the competition over the years but with the Olympics a huge goal for him this year, he will also be giving the Davis Cup a good go as well.
A Davis Cup victory is the only thing missing from his glittering CV so expect him to go all out for the title this year. With Nadal missing, it could be his big chance.
Thanks to @gbtennis for his help with the number-crunching.