Andy Murray goes into this week's ATP Masters 1000 in Paris with an excellent chance to leave the City of Light on Sunday with the No. 1 ranking wrenched from the hands of the man who scant months ago seemed to have it under long-term lease, Novak Djokovic.
So why are Murray and Djokovic so seemingly blasé about this new, electric development?
Murray, who's been playing like a father already worried about how he's going to afford college tuition, keeps reminding everyone that earning that No. 1 ranking remains on his to-do list for 2017 -- not 2016. He repeated the mantra to the media when he arrived in Paris the other day:
"My goal wasn't to finish No. 1 at the end of this year," Murray said. "There [was] a lot stronger chance of doing it in the early part of next year, which is what I [had] targeted -- rather than this week."
It's like liquidating a bunch of skyrocketing stock shares because you didn't really plan on getting rich right now; you were thinking three, four years from now.
Murray does make a valid point when he notes that acquiring the ranking isn't entirely in his own hands. Djokovic could conceivably lose to Murray in the Paris final, and also at least once in London, yet still hold onto No. 1.
"It's not in my control," Murray said. "Even if I win all of my matches this week, I still might not get there. It's in Novak's hands."
It's a sharp reminder of how deceptive the rankings system used by the ATP and WTA tours is, as well as an October surprise as great as anything this credulity-straining political season has kicked up.
Both Murray and Djokovic won their Paris Masters openers on Wednesday. The top-ranked Serb beat Gilles Muller 6-3, 6-4, while Murray held off Fernando Verdasco 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-5.
Murray's reluctance to fire his hopes up under these circumstances is sane and realistic. Yet, Djokovic must be looking like a bigger, juicier target with every passing day. It's partly because he seems increasingly preoccupied with quasi-spiritual, personal development issues than practical, tennis-related ones.
Djokovic arrived in Paris in this time of undeniable crisis without the two coaches who are generally considered the architects of his long and successful run at the top, Marian Vajda and Boris Becker. Instead, he is accompanied by doubles partner Nenad Zimonjic, a physiotherapist and trainer, and a guru-like spiritual adviser, Pepe Imaz.
The latter is a Spanish former journeyman player who once ranked No. 167 and won a round once at the French Open. Imaz espouses a home-baked, new age-type philosophy long on meditation and platitudes about peace, love, harmony and deep hugging. According to The Daily Mail, Imaz struck up a relationship with Novak after helping Djokovic's younger brother, Marko, recover from depression following his failure to make it as an ATP pro.
Just days after Wimbledon, Djokovic appeared in a lengthy video shot at a Spanish resort with which his new adviser is affiliated, presumably to spread the gospel according to Imaz. At the time, Murray was in Belgrade, lending support to the ultimately victorious British Davis Cup team battling Serbia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b66eDl9MIBg
In the video, Djokovic is seated on the dais along with Imaz, Marko Djokovic and another Imaz protégé, WTA pro Daniela Hantuchova. At one point, Novak Djokovic makes a fairly long speech about meditation:
"We switch off the exterior light, and we go inside to try to calm our minds, calm our energies. Why are we trying to do that? Because essentially we all are looking for love, happiness and harmony. And to find the love, happiness and harmony, we need to be able to look inward and to establish this connection with a divine light."
And so on.
After beating Muller, Djokovic was asked about his working relationship with Imaz.
"I don't know where you heard that he's a guru, first of all," Djokovic said. "He's been in tennis for all his life. I'm just glad that he came this week, together with my brother, to be with me and work with me. ... "I'm not going to go into details, because there is no sense. I know certain media is trying to find a story here in calling him guru. I'm not going to give any room for speculations anymore. He's been there, and he's part of the coaching team and that's all."
Well, the divine light was on the blink the last time Djokovic hit the court. His meltdown in the Shanghai semifinals was epic, and it's the last image he left us with. Djokovic claims he has "evolved" as a person since his third-round loss. But he's undoubtedly devolved as a tennis player. Perhaps his quest for harmony and inner peace is just Djokovic's way of preparing himself for a soft landing on that inevitable day when he loses the No. 1 ranking, as all top players do. Maybe he can harmonize himself right into accepting a No. 2 or 4 or 8 ranking with a blissful smile on his face.
Murray might continue to insist that his big day isn't at hand and may not be until at least next year. But he's been connecting with a light of his own, and while it may not be divine, it sure looks green.