The gap was 9000 points back in April. Andy Murray, the World No. 2, was so far behind that it didn’t matter anymore.
Novak Djokovic, then the World No. 1 for 22 straight months, had won almost every tournament he had played in this year: six tournament victories, which would soon include the French Open – his first ever Slam title in Paris. He took away Murray’s title by beating him in the Madrid Masters final, before losing to him in the Rome final. He then defeated Murray in the French Open final – incidentally the Brit player’s first-ever final here. That would also be his 12th Grand Slam title, a mere two behind Rafael Nadal, and five behind Roger Federer, and he hadn’t even turned 30 yet.
That was in May.
We’re now in October. Djokovic has won only one title since the French Open – the Toronto Masters. He has been struggling with motivation and injuries. He crashed out in the third round at Wimbledon to the big-serving Sam Querrey, before losing in the Olympics Singles first round to Juan Martin Del Potro – perhaps his toughest loss of the season, one that would deflate him permanently for the rest of the year. He then lost the US Open final to Stan Wawrinka before losing most recently in the semis at Shanghai to Roberto Bautista Agut – a match where he even lost his cool, his temper and all the calm he had worked so hard to accumulate in the tournament. He smashed his racquet after losing the first set, argued with the chair umpire soon and tore into his own shirt. This was a champion losing a strangehold over his own dominance – unable to cope with the fact that there were, in fact, others who were going to last the season better than him. After winning everything in the first half, many bet on the Serb winning the Golden Slam – all four slams and the elusive Olympic gold medal. But that possibility now seems like a bit of a joke, given that he all but collapsed after Paris – only highlighting how motivated and skillful Rafael Nadal must have been at his peak when he won the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back twice, even completing the ‘career slam’ (all four majors) in 2010. He had a fantastic 2013 season even after that, which points out to Djokovic only temporarily losing his mojo too.
To be fair, nobody has dominated tennis the way Novak has in the last two years. He has literally almost won everything he has ever played in. He may have tanked this year, and may also be considering a future without coach Boris Becker, but that’s only because he needs a change, a new challenge, a shifting of goal posts now that he has achieved virtually everything – except winning the maximum number of majors as a male tennis player. Five suddenly seems like a huge margin, given that even Federer won only one Slam after turning 30. Nadal turned 30 this year, and has just pulled out of the season to regain form and fitness for next year. The era is ending, which is why a machine like Djokovic’s only challenge was to be himself. And this year, he has been losing. Two Grand Slam titles and another final isn’t bad at all, but the expectations were far higher after his record-shattering 2015.
In the meantime, perennial World No. 2 Murray, who became one of the only tennis player to lose all four Slam finals after he lost in Paris this year, has quietly racked up the titles while Novak was stuttering. He won at Wimbledon, won another Olympic gold title (which had no bearing on his ranking points), wasn’t able to capitalize on Novak losing the US Open, and then, as usual, outlasted everyone on the ‘Asian’ swing of the tour. He won at Beijing again, won Shanghai last week, and is now a mere 2415 points from Djokovic – with the Paris Masters and the season-ending World Tour Finals at London to go. But Murray will play at Vienna, where 500 points are up for grabs – a tournament that Djokovic is skipping. Which means that if Murray wins at Vienna, and then wins at Paris (indoors; which Nole has won for three years in a row now), he will be the new number 1 player in the rankings. This won’t be easy, of course. Though Murray seems to be better at defeating the outsiders not ranked in the top 10 than Nole is currently.
Then comes London and 1500 points up for grabs, where Murray will be determined to end the season on a high and win his first-ever World Tour Finals title, as well as end the year on the top for the first time in his career.
This could arguably be a bigger achievement for him than his two Olympic titles and three slams, given that he is playing in an era which first had Federer at his peak, Nadal at his peak and then Djokovic at his extended peak – all of who enjoy positive head-to-head records against the Scot. Still, Murray has always been strong in the second half of a season when the others taper off. Djokovic has now been 120 consecutive weeks at number 1 and 221 weeks in total at the spot. It could well end in a couple of weeks more.
It’s only fair that Murray gets this voodoo out of the way, too, so that both of them can return back to competing against one another tooth and nail in 2017. If Djokovic relinquishes his spot this year, it will give him a target and goal to aim at next year before he turns 30 too. Either way, these are far more exciting times for tennis than, say, in May earlier this year or whole of last season.