For a few days last week in Paris, the ATP No. 1 ranking seemed to be very much in play.
Roger Federer, in the midst of terrific fall run that included two Davis Cup semifinal wins and titles in Shanghai and Basel, had maneuvered himself surprisingly close to Novak Djokovic. Entering the BNP Paribas Masters, Djokovic was nursing a 490-point lead -- an advantage the 33-year-old Federer could have erased with an entirely plausible title and an early exit by Djokovic.
Djokovic wrecked the field in Paris for the second consecutive year, besting Milos Raonic 6-2, 6- 3 in the championship final. It was Djokovic's 27th straight indoor victory and, overall, the 600th of his career.
Heading into the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London that begins Sunday, let's do the math:
In 2014, Djokovic has amassed 10,010 points, some 1,310 more than Federer, but there are 150 coming off for Davis Cup. So the margin will be 1,160. Since the best-case scenario in London is 1,500 points for an undefeated champion, Federer needs to do that (and collect the maximum 225 Davis Cup points) and Djokovic would have to fail to reach the semifinals if Federer is to finish No. 1.
So while it is still technically possible for Federer to finish on top for the first time in five years, the probability of it happening is just ahead of the prospect of his 6-month-old twins, Leo and Lenny, beating Bob and Mike Bryan for the Barclays doubles title.
This year-end event feels oddly disjointed. For starters, Rafael Nadal, who qualified third, will be at home in Mallorca, Spain, convalescing after appendix surgery. Also absent is Juan Martin del Potro, who missed most of the season with a left wrist injury. After making the year-end tournament four years in a row, David Ferrer fell just short.
In their places are three first-timers: US Open champion Marin Cilic, US Open finalist Kei Nishikori and Wimbledon semifinalist Milos Raonic. Stan Wawrinka, the Australian Open champion, appears in his second ATP championship.
The four Grand Slam titles were split among four different players, but they did not perform equally across the four majors. Consider these 2014 Grand Slam match win totals: Djokovic (22), Federer (19), Andy Murray (17), Nadal (16), Tomas Berdych (15), Cilic, Raonic and Wawrinka (14).
The two groups, which were determined Monday, look like this:
Group A: Djokovic, Wawrinka, Berdych and Cilic.
Group B: Federer, Nishikori, Murray and Raonic.
Sunday's opening afternoon match is Murray versus Nishikori, while the evening feature is a rematch of the Federer-Raonic semifinal in Paris that was won by Raonic.
So, what to expect in London? Here's a brief look at the eight competitors:
1. Novak Djokovic -- Despite operating in the waning primes of Federer and Nadal, the 27-year-old Serb continues to be the game's dominant player. This will be the third time in four years that he has finished with the No. 1 ranking. Djokovic should be keen to win this thing; he won the past two, going undefeated, and he's trying to become only the fifth man to win the year-end title at least four times.
2. Roger Federer -- Now that the race for No. 1 is all but over, Federer might be more focused on the Davis Cup final in Lille, France, which begins Nov. 21. Despite his age (33), Federer has won more matches (68) than anyone on the ATP Tour. He won six year-end titles in a span of nine seasons.
3. Stan Wawrinka -- Wawrinka, too, will be trying to conserve some energy for his Davis Cup battles with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet. Wawrinka has cooled off considerably since winning in Melbourne and taking his first Masters title in Monte Carlo. He reached the semifinals a year ago in London in his first try.
4. Kei Nishikori -- Nishikori did what he had to in Paris, getting all the way to the semifinals, with a gutsy victory over Ferrer in the quarterfinals. His magnificent run at the US Open dispelled doubts about his mental and physical toughness. How tough? Nishikori is 20-2 this year in deciding three-set matches. In a season of firsts for Nishikori, here's another one at year's end, and it should be fun to watch.
5. Andy Murray -- After going more than 14 months without reaching a final, Murray comes home to London with a flourish. He has won 20 of his past 23 matches and collected titles in Shenzen, China, Vienna, Austria and Valencia, Spain. Djokovic, though, handled him easily in the Paris quarterfinals. Murray made the year-end semifinals in 2008, 2010 and 2012.
6. Tomas Berdych -- The steady Czech player qualified for his fifth consecutive year-end tournament. It has been another nice fall for Berdych. He reached the final in Beijing and won the title in Stockholm. He reached the year-end semifinal in 2011.
7. Milos Raonic -- A good effort in Paris for Raonic, the youngest player in the Barclays field. He won his first four matches, including a first-ever victory over Federer, so he enters his first year-end tournament with some momentum.
8. Marin Cilic -- When Cilic (54-18, four titles) qualified for London he skipped Paris, so he comes in well-rested. At 26, he's the oldest of the three year-end rookies.