That Novak Djokovic will became the World No 1 in the near future is a formality after his triumphs in the last two majors of the year at Wimbledon and last month’s US Open. With the Cincinnati Masters win in August completing the Serb’s collection of ATP 1000 crowns it is only a matter of when he returns to the summit of the rankings after already having resoundingly made a comeback to the top of the men’s game.
This is because the current World No 3 missed out on this leg of the season last year, and does not have too many points to defend till Wimbledon next year. That should mean that barring surprise exits in Melbourne or Paris, or the unlikeliest of slumps in form, Djokovic should be atop the rankings by the time he gears up to defend his Wimbledon crown.
However, what the Serb would really want is to bag the ranking within the next month so that he could add another year-ending World No 1 to his bulging trophy cabinet, where four of those already sit proudly (2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015).
Mathematically there are at least six players within a shout of ending the year number one, with World No 6 Maric Cilic (4,715) and World No 5 Alexander Zverev (4,890) on the periphery of hopefuls.
World No 4 Juan Martin Del Potro (5,980) could really push his name into the mix if he wins Beijing this week and follows it up with a title at the Shanghai Masters next week. The Argentinian would have to win the bulk of the remaining silverware to guarantee himself the No 1 ranking.
Realistically, however, the race to No 1 is between the three maestros who have collectively ruled the game for the past decade and a half.
Rafael Nadal has been the World No 1 for a large chunk of the past 14 months, with Roger Federer intermittently taking away the ranking from him during this time. The Spaniard has however been top of the ranking since June this year and finished 2017 as the World No 1 as well to win his fourth year-ending number one crown.
Nadal (8,760) currently enjoys a health lead over Federer (6,900) and Djokovic (6,445), but by Monday the Spaniard would have lost 500 of his points after skipping Beijing, which he won last year. Nadal has also decided to sit out the Shanghai Masters, where he finished the runners-up last year, which means another 600 points being dropped.
Therefore, Nadal will drop a collective 1,100 points from the Asian swing, bringing him down to 7,660 points at the end of it.
Since Federer won Shanghai last year, he can only stay at 6,900 points if he defends the title, with any earlier exits resulting in a drop in points. And with Djokovic not having any points to defend, he would only rise from his current 6,445 points, making him the favourite to be the World No 2 by the end of the Asia swing.
For instance, should Federer beat Djokovic in the Shanghai final, the latter would still gain 600 points, taking him to 7,045 points, while the Swiss stays at 6,900 in the best case scenario.
Following Shanghai, the year-end ranking would become a straight forward three-way shootout since neither Federer nor Nadal won any noteworthy points at the Paris Masters or the World Tour Finals, although the Swiss would have 500 points to defend at Basel.
Even so, it’s safe to say that if any of this illustrious trio wins both Paris and the World Tour Finals, they are guaranteed the number one ranking.
Nadal has never won either of the two indoor tournaments, with the WTFs the biggest vacuum in his glittering CV. The word from his camp is that he would return to give the tournament another shot, but it’s evident that he has set his sight on next year and ensuring he stays healthy. There is more than a plausible chance that Nadal might call it a season and not hit another ball this year.
While Federer became the oldest World No 1 this year, the opportunity to become the oldest ever year-ending number one player could be a great motivation for him to finish the season strongly. Winning Basel, Paris and WTFs back to back to back isn’t past him at all, but the only concern here is his own form which has been on the downward slide since he won his 20th Grand Slam title in Melbourne this year.
Therefore, a strong showing at Shanghai would make Djokovic the firm favourite for the year-ending number one ranking, regardless of the schedule Nadal opts for. Federer and potentially Del Potro might be the only hurdles in the way of the Serb, who after conquering the second half of the season, and winning two of the four majors, would be the prime contender to top the year-end rankings.