"It is still open, the No. 1 spot of the world," ATP no. 2 Novak Djokovic said shortly before he began his current Asian swing at the China Open. "Obviously I will try to dedicate myself and focus on every tournament that I play. ... I will try to not think about calculations, not think about any other players' results, and just concentrate on my own game."
Those are very welcome words coming from the mouth of a top player at the tail end of the season. They are particularly appreciated in light of the way a fatigued Djokovic faded and all but threw in the towel after he bagged that third Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open last September.
Earlier this year, I questioned the wisdom of Djokovic announcing that he had two main ambitions in 2012: to win Roland Garros and Olympic gold in singles. That just seemed to invite pressure and, in the event of failure, criticism. But I applaud him for going out on a limb on this one. He knows he can more-or-less rescue much of his year with the year-end No. 1 ranking, especially because none of the Big Four in tennis has won more than one Grand Slam title this year.
And if it this doesn't work out either? Who cares? The year will be over. But the game will surely have gotten a huge surge of adrenaline from Djokovic's drive for the top spot. Plus, Nole's obvious dedication and desire to finish the year at No. 1 suggest that we're going to have a terrific finish with No. 1-ranked Roger Federer due to re-emerge on the tour next week in Shanghai.
Ordinarily, that would be bad news for any of Federer's rivals, because he's proved himself to be the undisputed king of the last quarter of the year. Last year, Federer went a perfect 17-0, including Davis Cup, and the ranking points he earned in that run played a huge role in his ability to recapture the no. 1 ranking.
But those points count for very little now. Because when it comes to finishing as the year-end No. 1, the only points that count are the ones you earn in any given year (of course, the rolling 12-month ranking system will also confirm the validity of the race points when it's all over).
So while Federer is atop the singles rankings, with 11,805 points (that's 1,325 points more than Djokovic has), he trails Djokovic by 990 points in the all-important "race to London" table that gives a more accurate picture of how a player is doing in the current year. Or, to put it simply: Djokovic is having a better year than Federer. Can he keep it up?
That 990 points is a significant deficit, given that it's just 10 points less than a player earns for winning a prized Masters 1000. That will compensate somewhat for the edge Federer enjoys as the world's best indoor hard-court player. Otherwise, the rivals are going into this on as close to equal footing as you can ask. They're playing the same number and kind of tournaments: Each has an ATP 500 (Djokovic is in Beijing this week, Federer will defend in Basel) and the final two Masters 1000 events (Shanghai and the Paris Indoors) and the World Tour Finals.
There's an excellent chance that the race for the year-end No. 1 ranking will come down to a shootout at the World Tour Finals. The only winner I can surely predict in that event is the game itself.