Those following the race for the ATP number one ranking in the recent past would know just how momentous this week was going to be. Rafael Nadal took the number one ranking from Andy Murray in August, with Roger Federer close behind him ahead of the North American hard court swing.
While neither Nadal nor Federer could bag Montreal or Cincinnati Masters, it was the Spaniard who won the US Open to cement the number one ranking. However, the position at the summit could’ve been temporary ahead of the Asian swing and the World Tour Finals in London.
Even so, despite losing the Shanghai Masters final to Federer, Nadal eventually established himself as the year-end number one after winning a match at the Paris Masters. Injury meant he had to withdraw from both the Paris Masters and then later from the World Tour Finals.
With Federer not landing the World Tour Finals, the equation for Nadal to remain the number one at the start of 2018 was simple: make the quarterfinals at the Australian Open. And the quarterfinal stage was precisely where he was knocked out by Marin Cilic, after another injury-enforced withdrawal.
But after Federer retained the Australian Open, the points gap between him and Nadal entering February was reduced to 155 points. That meant the 20-time major champion could become the number one if he went deep in one of the ATP 500 tournaments in February.
The general belief was that he would enter the Dubai ATP 500 tournament at the end of February, which would coincide with Rafael Nadal playing that Acapulco ATP 500 – which would’ve resulted in another two-way leg of the race. However, Federer entered this week’s Rotterdam tournament, with Nadal not simultaneously in action, meaning that reaching the semifinal this week would’ve guaranteed him the number one ranking.
This piece is being written ahead of Federer’s quarterfinal clash with Robin Hasse on Friday. Winning that match would make Federer, at 36, the oldest World No 1 in ATP history (the previous being Andre Aggasi at 33) and would mean that he will return to the summit of the rankings for the first time since October 4, 2012 – another record for the most time elapsed between returning to No 1. It would also mean that there would be 14 years since he first topped the ATP rankings, on February 2, 2004, till now – yet another record for the longest overall span that a player has managed to be the World No 1.
Of course, there remains the freak possibility that Hasse could have pulled off an upset on Friday, even with so much at stake for Federer – which has hardly ever happened. But even if that might have transpired, the Swiss could seal the top spot in the coming weeks, even though he has 2000 points to defend at Indian Wells and Miami.
While Nadal might’ve remained in front of him in the rankings in the second half of last year, Federer was the player of 2017 – even if not the top-ranked. And after the Australian Open win, he now has won three of the past five majors – after almost five years without winning one – which affirm both his longevity and the fact that he’s, again, a notch above everyone else in men’s tennis – this is especially true considering his ongoing five-match winning streak against Nadal.
The biggest factor in Federer’s resurgence has been his scheduling, which he nailed to perfection in 2017. Skipping the clay court season was a smart move, and so was skipping Cincinnati and Paris Masters. And even though that meant that he couldn’t bag the number one ranking last year, it helped him land more silverware in the shape of two Grand Slam titles and three ATP Masters 1000 trophies, which he has reiterated has been his ambition.
But considering that he only lost four matches all year in 2017, and hence has been winning most of the tournaments that he has entered, means that he has now reached the top of the rankings as well.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Federer follows a similar schedule in 2018, and considering that Nadal is physically struggling, achieving 80 percent of what he did last year could ensure that the Swiss ends the year as the number one as well.
This is despite the fact that he would be defending maximum points in Indian Wells and Miami, while he in all likelihood wouldn’t be participating in the clay court season after that.
With a record-extending 20th major triumph in Australia last month, and with the number one ranking in the bag, Federer would now look to Wimbledon and the US Open as his two main targets this year. Even though a lot is going to happen between now and then, Federer would be the comfortable favourite for both.
But regardless of what happens, Federer continues to extend the list of records in what is the most illustrious career in men’s tennis. The fans hope that he continues to extend it for as long as possible.