Stillness helps Novak Djokovic recharge, so it’s fitting he made a major move without stepping on court this week.
Djokovic, who credits his daily silent meditation sessions for improved clarity, reached a milestone in becoming the ninth man in ATP history to hold the world No. 1 ranking for 100 weeks. But is hitting the century mark a prelude to an extended run or a sign of a pending expiration date?
“The simple answer to that question is it depends on Djokovic’s rivalry with Nadal,” said ESPN announcer Cliff Drysdale, who has covered all nine men to reign for at least 100 weeks at the top. “When Djokovic was beating Nadal, he could take his time and wait for the short ball and then jump on it. And it didn’t matter how long it took for that ball to come -- he was ready for that moment. Lately, Nadal is taking that opportunity away from him, and that is really what has changed in their rivalry. And the solution to that is for Novak is to become a little more aggressive more quickly in their rallies.”
They may be swapping spots soon. Barring injury or inactivity, a resurgent Rafa, who leads Novak by 2,905 points in the ATP Race, will almost certainly surpass the Serbian to seize the year-end No. 1 ranking for the third time in the past six years.
Two-time year-end No. 1 Djokovic, who is defending 3,000 ranking points over the rest of the season, has lost six of his past seven matches to Nadal. Djokovic has also dropped his past two Grand Slam finals, and the four-time Australian Open champion is 2-6 in major finals contested outside of Melbourne.
Djokovic drove his two-handed backhand to counter Nadal's crosscourt forehand in winning seven straight matches between the pair from March 2011 through the 2012 Australian Open. But the 13-time Grand Slam champion has played more assertive tennis and has been a more convincing closer in matches preceding his clashes with Djokovic.
“Djokovic still believes he can beat Nadal, but it’s the matches before he gets to Nadal that are important for him beating Nadal,” Hall of Famer and television analyst Fred Stolle told ESPN.com. “I think Djokovic lost a bit of his edge in both the Wimbledon and the US Open finals because both of his semifinals went the distance. The 54-stroke rally Nadal and Djokovic played in the US Open final was the best rally I’ve ever seen -- each guy hit 10 winners and each of them responded to those winners with interest in that rally -- but when Djokovic has to deal with Nadal’s relentless pursuit of perfection, it’s just bloody hard, particularly when he had to go five with Stanislas Wawrinka a few days before.”
Consider that five of Djokovic’s nine losses this season have come to opponents ranked outside the top five and you can better understand that the physicality of today’s tennis means free points don’t come easily. The 26-year-old Serbian has not won a title since he snapped Rafa’s eight-year reign in Monte Carlo in April.
With a healthy, hungry Nadal rampaging through the tour, registering a 22-0 mark on hard courts and a 17-1 record versus top-10 opponents this season, Djokovic’s short-term hold on the top spot is tenuous, but his long-term future at No. 1 is tremendous. Here are five reasons why Djokovic will make an extended run at No. 1 and climb the longevity ladder among the sport’s iconic champions even if he drops to No. 2 as expected:
Although hard court is his best surface, Djokovic’s ability to adapt to all surfaces is a major asset. He is the only top-10 player with a winning percentage of .825 or better on every surface in 2013.
“He’s so good. Really, even though the players are great today, I think he really only has to be concerned with a couple of them,” Pete Sampras, who held the year-end top spot for a record six straight years, said earlier this season. “I see him -- if he stays healthy -- staying on top for as long as he wants to be. I just think he’s that good. He wins on hard court; he wins on clay; he wins on grass.”
Djokovic’s skill in shortening his backswing to take the ball early makes him a sniper on return. His work sharpening his serve and forehand were key components to his commanding 2011 season, when he won 10 titles in 11 finals, including three Grand Slam crowns.
“The mechanical changes he made to his swings -- he clearly changed his forehand and even more dramatically his serve -- have made a world of difference, and I think he can get more juice on his first serve,” Drysdale said.
You can focus on the fact that Djokovic is 2-4 in his past six Grand Slam finals, but consider he’s riding a streak of 14 consecutive major semifinal appearances and his 14 career Masters 1000 titles puts him fourth all-time behind Nadal (26), Roger Federer (21) and Andre Agassi (17). When you repeatedly put yourself in position to play for the most meaningful titles, as Djokovic does, it ensures a place among the elite.
Health is an essential element to longevity, and Djokovic, who tapped out of matches in three of the four majors early in his career, conceding his body felt like it was “breaking down,” has become one of the fittest men in the game since breaking from bread. The gluten-free Novak has played at least 60 matches a year for seven straight years and owns a 20-7 record in five-setters (.741 winning percentage).
Djokovic's elastic ability to attack and defend off the return has prompted Agassi to call him the best returner he’s ever seen. Djokovic is No. 12 on the ATP in break points converted (43 percent), while Nadal is No. 2 (47 percent), and is No. 3 in return games won (33 percent). But if Djokovic is slashing his return down the line, it opens the court against even his fiercest rival.
“The Djokovic return to the Nadal forehand, particularly off the first court, is the key stroke in their rivalry,” Stolle said. “Djokovic has learned to tag that return of serve right down the line to the forehand, and Nadal moves to his right after serving to set up his forehand so space is there. Nadal served well at the US Open, so it comes down to confidence with both of them trying to take control, and I do think the rivalry will continue to go back and forth.”