NEW YORK -- The devaluation of the No. 1 ranking in tennis has been going on for a long while now, even if nobody really likes to harp on it that much because, well, you know, it can seem a little uncouth.
Players say the top ranking is a nice thing to have, all right -- don't get me wrong. And no male player would throw the top ranking or ITF's Player of the Year honor into the whirlpool if it fell in his lap. But the prevailing ethic in the men's (and women's) games now is exactly what Andy Murray described a couple weeks back, on the eve of defending his US Open title.
"My whole career -- for four, five, six years back -- it's been about winning Grand Slams," Murray said. "I could win a Masters Series event and the first question I would get asked was, 'When are you going to win a Grand Slam?' It wasn't, 'When are you going to get to No. 1?'"
Murray was just telling the truth. And he's not the only player who feels that way.
But the US Open has a different feel this year because heading into the final weekend, the goals actually do dovetail: The battle for supremacy at the top of the men's game is so up for grabs, whichever member of the men's top three wins this tournament -- and nobody really expects the winner to be anyone other than top-ranked Novak Djokovic, No. 2 Rafael Nadal or the third-ranked Murray -- will be the only man to have won two Slam titles this year. And he'll walk away with bragging rights as the best player of 2013, by acclaim.
Murray is too far behind in the point standings to rise to No. 1 -- that honorific will stay with Djokovic or Nadal, even if Murray defends his Open title. But if he does pull it off, Murray would leave New York with the second-most tournament titles this year and he'd be the only man to have won two majors, and certainly pass the eyeball test as the world's top player.
While that distinction may not be the end-all, be-all for Djokovic or Nadal -- who both have been No. 1 before, remember -- being on top would be exciting new territory for Murray.
His ability to sling-shot past a fading Roger Federer and put himself in the top-three conversation with Djokovic and Nadal never felt assured until he beat Djokovic in the US Open final last year, then knocked him off again this summer in their riveting final at Wimbledon.
In between those two losses to Murray, Djokovic did beat him in the final of the Australian Open this year. Should they meet again here, in the semis on Saturday, don't be surprised if it turns out to be the match of the tournament.
Murray didn't have a great summer campaign after his Wimbledon win. But that was no surprise considering the celebration his breakthrough touched off back in Britain. Queen Elizabeth II sent along her congratulations, Prime Minister David Cameron invited Murray to drop by for a hit at 10 Downing Street, and there was talk about whether the 26-year-old Scot should be a candidate for immediate knighthood.
Murray admitted, "I just had to kind of keep reminding myself that that actually happened, it wasn't just all a dream, because everything that went on after was quite surreal, the amount of attention and stuff that comes with that in the UK. Literally every time I turned the television on or something, I was there. It felt like a movie. It didn't feel real."
Reality will set in if he plays Djokovic, the 2011 Open champ.
Djokovic didn't even bother being falsely modest about the high level he's playing at right now after his 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 thumping of Spaniard Marcel Granollers on Tuesday. He started his post-match news conference by saying, "I had some great matches in the past" but this one qualified as "some of the best tennis that I've played on Arthur Ashe [Stadium] in my career. It's a fantastic feeling when you're playing this well. You love spending time on the court and experiencing such a great zone."
Then, just in case he didn't hammer home the point to the rest of the field that he's feeling good -- as in really, really good -- Djokovic added a few minutes later, "It's all coming together for me right now. ... I'm going to have bigger challenges, better quality players, higher-ranked players, but I'm ready for that challenge.
"I look forward to it."
Confident as Djokovic seems, it's hard to forget Nadal was actually the hottest player on tour coming into the Open 11 days ago. He won nine of the 12 tournaments he entered this year, including the French Open, where he beat David Ferrer in the final.
And Nadal has had a fortuitous passage through the draw since arriving here. He avoided a rematch with the fourth-seeded Ferrer when Ferrer lost in five sets Wednesday to No. 8 Richard Gasquet. Before that, Nadal dodged a quarterfinal meeting with Federer when Federer was upset by Tommy Robredo. Nadal will make that trade any day, even if he has won two-thirds of his career matches against Federer and the Swiss star was seeded only seventh here.
On any given night, Federer can still find magic in his racket.
Now, it's still a bit odd to see him gone so soon.
But Djokovic, Nadal and Murray should provide plenty of excitement on their own. For what it's worth, all three men's minds seem to be in slightly different places heading into the final weekend.
Murray has admitted he can play better.
Nadal relentlessly keeps deflecting talk about how good his year has been by saying he doesn't trust the success will carry over. (Reminded a couple matches ago that he hadn't lost his serve yet, Nadal smirked and said, "Gonna happen. No worries." And everyone broke up laughing.)
But Djokovic has been terrifically at ease, blowing opponents away on the court and holding forth afterward on everything from his gluten-free diet to how fast the stenographers who transcribe every tournament news conferences can type ("Wow wow wow wow wow," Djokovic said.) When a reporter clumsily opened a question to him the other day by beginning, "You were, let's say, a skinny guy who grew up by a pizza parlor in the Serbian mountains ...," Djokovic interrupted with a smile and cracked, "Nice description. Very nice, thank you.
"You want to do my biography?"
Here's one last thing to consider while trying to settle who's tops among the men's top three: Though Djokovic, Murray and Nadal each has a major title this year, each has come with a slight qualifier: Djokovic won the Australian without having to face Nadal, who was out injured; Nadal won the French without having to worry about Murray, who was out with a bad back; and Murray went on to take Wimbledon after Nadal bombed out in the first round.
Being the only man to win two Slam titles this year means more than the top ranking. But if both things are just sitting out there for the taking like low-hanging fruit?
As Djokovic might say, "Wow wow wow wow wow."
Get ready for a great ending to the tournament, no matter who comes out No. 1.