Novak Djokovic might secure one of the most cherished records in tennis history in the coming weeks, all without lifting a finger or swinging a racket.
It’s yet another unexpected result of the postponements due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Top-ranked Djokovic has spent a grand total of 281 weeks spread out over his career in the No. 1-ranked spot. That leaves him in third place for all players since the computer rankings were first employed in August 1973. He is just five weeks behind Pete Sampras and 29 short of the record held by Roger Federer (310 weeks).
If the ATP decides that the period during the suspension of play will count in the official stats, Djokovic is likely to gain significant ground, passing Sampras, and perhaps even Federer, in the record books before ATP Tour play resumes.
“Federer fans will get upset,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said, “but I think Djokovic should get credit for those weeks while the rankings are frozen with him at No. 1. He earned the ranking, and he was going to be No. 1 for a while even if things went on as normal.”
Djokovic has been spectacular since late fall, unbeaten in his past 21 matches (18-0 in 2020). He is the Australian Open champion. He throttled Rafael Nadal — his main active rival, as Federer is out with injury and presently ranked No. 4 — in straight sets the last time they played, in the ATP Cup finals.
The ATP Tour, which joined the WTA Tour in freezing rankings until the return date for both tours (tentatively June 7), are in the midst of deciding the Djokovic issue (and others). The result is likely to be controversial, either way.
Simon Higson, a spokesperson for the ATP, wrote in an email: “Many aspects related to the freeze of the FedEx ATP rankings, as well as the details as to how the freeze will work with the resumption of the Tour, are still to be confirmed following further review. Further information will be provided in due course.”
Amy Binder, WTA vice president for global communications, replied in like manner in an email.
The tours have similar ranking systems that track results over a rolling 52-week period, with points a player gained from the previous week added and points that were gained at the same time last year dropping off. The rankings system assumes continuous play, which is why the tours have a problem — as well as a variety of solutions.
The most basic response is to extend the present freeze on the rankings and statistical records until play resumes. Djokovic would remain 29 weeks behind Federer at No. 1 despite holding the ranking for however long the emergency lasts. It would be tantamount to blanking the pandemic period out of the game’s statistical history.
The tours also could keep the freeze in place but adjust the rankings and stats based on where the players would rank week to week when their results from the previous year drop off. That’s where the case for counting the weeks on Djokovic’s behalf seems strongest.
“Going into Indian Wells, Djokovic was going to stay No. 1 by the end, unless he lost before the semis and Rafa won the tournament,” Gilbert said. “That didn’t play out, and Djokovic is still No. 1. If you start dropping points as the weeks go on the way the system works, Djokovic would keep the top ranking for a long time, probably until at least Wimbledon [where he is defending champion] drops off.”
In other words, under conditions where nobody can add points, Djokovic will not lose enough points for anyone (Nadal is the only realistic challenger) to leapfrog over him.
Darren Cahill, coach of Simona Halep and also an ESPN analyst, agrees with Gilbert.
“[Djokovic should get that credit] until the next major, and then I’m a bit unsure of what is the right thing to do,” Cahill said.
“These weeks he would have retained the No. 1. The same goes for [Ashleigh] Barty.”
While the rankings facts are undeniable, some will still bristle at the idea of Djokovic getting credit for remaining No. 1 at a time when nobody can challenge him. After all, Nadal was in a position to reclaim the top spot at Indian Wells, and as the “king of clay,” he was heading into the European red-clay segment that he has so often ruled. But even if the tour had been suspended with Nadal at No. 1 after Indian Wells, Djokovic could have still replaced him again as long as Nadal was unable to add points in the spring.
The most radical and most fitting solution would be to the embrace a plan Nadal himself has called for: a ranking system based on two years of results, not 12 months.
“It’s inconceivable to let points drop off without the players having the chance to replace them,” Macpherson said in an interview. “That happens a lot in the 12-month system, and it could be happening now. [Dominic] Thiem won Indian Wells last year, and Rafa was dominant on clay. They should have the chance to defend those points even if the events this year are canceled.”
The proponents of the two-year ranking system stress that players who leave the tour for a few months (usually due to injury) are unduly punished under the present system. It happened to Isner last year. The defending champion at the Miami Open, he made the final again in 2019 but suffered a stress fracture in his foot during the final. He was out for three months.
“That’s a quarter of a year,” Macpherson said. “So he was really up against it when he returned. This situation is a little like that. So Rafa’s idea is looking really good right now.”
If the ATP and WTA were at all receptive to the idea of a two-year ranking but reluctant to abandon a system that seemed to be working well, the current crisis affords an excellent opportunity to transition. Or more likely, the tours could implement the 24-month plan until a full, 12-month cycle of play has been completed again — assuming the tour resumes some time before the hiatus has lasted a full year.
“I don’t know who the system will help or what it’s going to be when we resume play,” Gilbert said. “But the one thing I think is that we’re not just going to jump back into the status quo.”