How winning hurt Novak Djokovic

Now that three of tennis’ big four have taken their bows and added to their resumes during the third (and best) Davis Cup week (you get the semifinals and the critical World Group Playoffs), it’s time to look ahead to the final segment of the season -- the two big Masters 1000 events (Shanghai and the Paris Indoors), plus the year-end championships.

The main thing to watch will be the chase for the year-end No. 1 ranking, which can be summed up easily. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic remains in the lead, but No. 2 Rafael Nadal has been closing on him like a cheetah running down a fatigued antelope. Right now, Nadal trails Djokovic by a mere 260 ranking points (11,120 to 10,860). That’s fewer points than a player earns for making a Masters1000 semifinal (360 points).

And believe it or not, that’s the least of Djokovic’s problems.

The fact is, Djokovic is holding a mortgage on more than 2,000 points (2,110 to be exact) that he earned last year with big wins in the ATP World Tour Finals, the Shanghai Masters and the Beijing 500 event. Djokovic will be unable to add to his points total at any of those events; he can only replace those points with the same amount or lose ranking points by failing to duplicate those outstanding results. It’s how the ranking system works. Each week the points earned from the previous year drop off the computer while the points earned that week are added.

The only tournament where Djokovic can actually post a net gain in points would be the Paris Indoors (that is, unless he adds 500 or 250 tournaments to his schedule). He was a second-round loser last year and picked up all of 10 ATP ranking points.

Now look at Nadal’s situation: He has absolutely no ranking points to defend until well after the Australian Open because he missed the entire year after Wimbledon in 2012. If Rafa really wanted to torture Nole, he could take a late wild card into the Kuala Lumpur 250 event next week, win the thing (the top seed is likely to be David Ferrer; enough said) and close to within 10 points while Djokovic sits in that magic egg thing, nibbles on a gluten-free soy muffin and wonders, “What the heck do I do now?”

In fact, Djokovic could conceivably thrash Nadal in the two remaining Masters events and the year-end championships and he’ll still lose that precious year-end No. 1 ranking to Rafa, simply because it’s all profit for Nadal now and all operating expenses for Djokovic. It points both to the great strength and the great weakness of the ranking system.

If you’re a Djokovic fan, you can always look on the bright side: Losing the top ranking will be painful for him, but he looks like a man in need of a wake-up call after a wonderful-but-bittersweet year. He made three Grand Slam finals and one semi, and while his year was made in advance when he won the Australian Open, those losses at the other three majors had real sting.

Let’s take a quick look at the other, trailing two members of the elite ATP quartet. No. 3 Andy Murray has 7,705 points, so he’s in a really distant third. He can pick up some ground, as he was a third-round loser in Paris and a semifinal failure at the World Tour Finals, but he’s also defending a final in Shanghai. If he had a great fall, though, he could actually press Djokovic at No. 2 (because of all the points the latter is defending) if not Nadal, who seems the pre-destined No. 1.

As for Roger Federer, he will be fighting for his top-10 life this fall. He’s No. 5 presently, with 4,515 points. He had an outstanding fall last year, a run that may end up looking something like a last hurrah unless he pulls himself out of his current tailspin. He’s defending nearly 1,500 points this fall, which includes a WTF final and a Shanghai semi. Unless he experiences a magical resurgence, he’ll have to watch, horrified, as those points melt away. You know what you get for making the quarters at a Masters 1000? One-hundred and eighty points.

Federer has his work cut out if he hopes to hang in there in the critical (for seeding purposes) top eight. Meanwhile, the cheetah is running free and wild.