Updated: October 19, 2011, 1:15 PM ET

Federer primed to end title drought

Garber By Greg Garber
ESPN.com
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Novak Djokovic had yet another victory in a season of triumphs this past week when he clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking. Of course, he was nowhere near Shanghai when Rafael Nadal lost in the third round, guaranteeing him a No. 2 finish.

Djokovic is the first man not named Nadal or Federer to finish at No. 1 since Andy Roddick eight years ago -- a generation in elite tennis.

When we last saw Djokovic, a month ago in Belgrade, there were tears in his eyes. The 24-year-old Serb suffered a torn muscle in his back in an unsuccessful Davis Cup match against Juan Martin del Potro, and he's been recuperating at home in Monte Carlo.

Roger Federer also checked out of Shanghai -- with "nagging injuries" -- and has been lying low in Bottmingen, Switzerland. In less than two weeks, he'll make the short commute to Basel, where he was once a ball boy. There, Federer and Djokovic are scheduled to lead the field, starting on Halloween.

Federer is the defending Basel champion, and Djokovic won the title there in 2009, beating Federer in the final. Djokovic is a zany 64-3 for the year; his only clean (non-retiring) loss was to Federer in the semifinals at Roland Garros.

"Fed likes that tournament [Basel], and he always plays well indoors," said ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert. "Djokovic's had an historic year, but I'm not sure he has anything to play for, except not to lose that air of invincibility. Roger has what, one title? I'm sure he'd like to get that winning feeling back."

Indeed, 30-year-old Federer won his first tournament back in January (Doha) and has gone 0-for-12 since. It was the first time he has failed to win a Grand Slam since 2002. And, perhaps nearly as insulting, Andy Murray has knocked him out of the top three for the first time since July, 2003.

Murray, not Djokovic, is actually the hottest man in tennis. Murray has won 25 of his previous 26 matches -- taking titles in Cincinnati, Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai, along with two Davis Cup victories. The only loss? To Nadal in the U.S. Open semifinals.

"My goal for the last three-four months after the U.S. Open was to try to finish as high as possible and win as many matches as I could," Murray said after beating David Ferrer in the Shanghai final. "It's obviously been a great start. But I'm still not guaranteed to finish at No. 3. I'm still going to have to win some more matches. But if you finish in front of Federer in a year, then there's not many people the last five, six, seven years that have been able to say that. So that's obviously a nice thing if I can do it."

Gilbert, who was Murray's coach for 16 months in 2006-07, liked what he saw in the Scotsman's 3-6 6-2, 6-0 win over Nadal in that Tokyo final.

"I've never seen him play better, bar none," Gilbert said. "Offensive capabilities last two sets? Like, wow. He was playing like Djokovic. Maybe this is the 2010 Djokovic. Maybe this is his signal that he's going to make his run in 2012.

"It's just a matter of when he's going to win a Grand Slam -- but we keep saying that."

The big four are scheduled to reconvene at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris (Nov. 7), then again at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, a limited-field event that starts Nov. 20.

Last week, Ferrer was the fifth player to earn a berth in the year-end event in London. The 29-year-old Spaniard qualified for the third time in five years. Tomas Berdych (2,940), Mardy Fish (2,875) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2,790) are the next candidates in line for London with one month and seven events left to play.

A first for Radwanska?

Agnieszka Radwanska has never officially qualified for the WTA year-end championship, but she has a good chance to get a VIP invitation to Istanbul on Monday.

The first Polish woman to win a WTA title, Radwanska won back-to-back titles in Tokyo and Beijing; the victory in China was her first premier/mandatory title and made her the leading candidate for the No. 8 and final spot. Vera Zvonareva and Samantha Stosur have locked down the No. 6 and No. 7 slots.

Interestingly, Radwanska was an alternate at the 2008 and 2009 events and won both of her singles matches. Radwanska is the No. 2 seed this week in Moscow, and Marion Bartoli is No. 3. Bartoli, who beat Stosur in the Osaka final, needs to win in Moscow to take the final qualifying berth for Istanbul.

Both Serena and Venus Williams have shut it down for the season. Serena, ranked No. 14, went 22-3 after a series of health scares. No. 101 Venus played only eleven matches (8-3). It will be interesting to see whether Venus (31 years old) and Serena (30) can get themselves healthy and fit and play a fuller schedule in 2012.

Five Questions With …

… Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson was already the 2011 NCAA singles champion for USC when he wafted onto the professional radar back at the U.S. Open. Playing red-hot Alex Bogomolov Jr., Johnson won the first two sets, but Bogomolov survived in five. The match went 3 hours, 40 minutes, and left Johnson, still only 21, and others wondering whether he should turn pro. He went on to win two Futures events and pushed his ranking to a career-best No. 405 -- 27th among American men.

Johnson is faced with an intriguing decision: jump into the professional ranks in January 2012 -- or go back to school, where history beckons. Johnson's USC squad already has won three consecutive NCAA team titles, so he could join some select company with a fourth title. Only two men, according to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, have done that: Paul Goldstein and Charles Hoeveler, at Stanford in 1995-98. USC also won four straight titles, from 1966 to '69, but no one (including Stan Smith and Bob Lutz) played all four years.

Five women won four titles at Stanford when the Cardinals took six straight from 1986 to '91. ESPN.com caught up with Johnson last week while he was playing the Tiburon Challenger in California. He lost to No. 1 seed Ryan Sweeting in the first round in three sets. Johnson's professional schedule for the remainder of the season: Challengers in Charlottesville, Va.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Champaign, Ill.

ESPN.com: What was it like playing on the Grand Slam stage in New York?

Steve Johnson: It was an eye-opening week to be in the U.S. Open main draw, something you work for your whole life. It was kind of surreal. I played really good the first two sets, and then Bogie came back. Mentally, it was tough. It's different playing guys in the top 100. They're really good -- that's why they're there. In college, I felt like I was the guy in the top 100. I could pretty much go out there and tough out any match, whether I was playing well or not. I just don't have enough match experience at that level. Once I get more top-100 matches, I feel like I can start pulling out those matches.

ESPN.com: Which begs the question: to turn pro or stay in college? To whom have you talked about your decision?

Steve Johnson: I'm pretty good buddies with Sam [Querrey, with whom he played doubles at Tiburon]. We go back 10, 12 years in juniors. I played John Isner in Cincinnati. Sam won three Challengers, and it was his time to go. Talking to John, he was ready to go after his junior year, but he wanted to win the nationals in his backyard -- which he did. They took two different paths, and no one path is necessarily the best.

ESPN.com: What are the short-term, quantifiable accomplishments that would send you to the ATP World Tour?

Steve Johnson: If I was to win, say, two of the next three Challengers, maybe I wouldn't come back. But we're [at USC] in a pretty special position to try and win four titles. We can make history and match what Paul Goldstein did at Stanford. I've talked to my parents about it, and the immediate goal is to just get as many points as possible. If I could make it into the top 300, high 200s, I could qualify for qualifying at the Australia Open. That is the goal right now.

ESPN.com: Talking to ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, he said you have the potential to be a top-50 player. Ultimately, how hard will this decision be?

Steve Johnson: Very tough. I've talked to [USC coach] Peter [Smith], and he would tell you I don't owe the school anything. But it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win four. We have a very good team this year. I feel an obligation to my friend [senior] Daniel [Nguyen]. It would be nice to go out on a high note.

ESPN.com: Take us through your time frame.

Steve Johnson: I've got the three Challengers [Oct. 31, Nov. 7 and Nov. 14], so I won't decide until I'm finally done with the year. Unless I exceed all expectations, doing exceptionally well, there's probably not much of an argument [to turn pro.] If not, I'd probably go back in January and try for the fourth title. I can play pro tournaments during the college season, maybe Indian Wells and some Challengers. It's a big decision, but I'm going to make the right one.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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