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Nadal Poses Threat To Djokovic In Year-End No. 1 Battle

Battle For No. 1

Nadal© AFP/Getty Images

Is Rafael Nadal the player most likely to challenge Novak Djokovic for the year-end No. 1 Emirates ATP Ranking? Despite a recent loss to the Serb in the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters final – and a late start to the season - the numbers suggest that Nadal is poised to make life very difficult for Djokovic in his quest to end the year No. 1 for a third consecutive year.

After missing the first month of the year due to a knee injury and a stomach virus, Nadal has arguably emerged as the Serb’s biggest threat after reaching the finals of all six tournaments he has contested, winning four titles, including last week’s Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell.

One reason for Nadal’s resurgence in 2013? “He didn’t rush back until he was close to 100 percent, and the results back up that he made the right decision,” former World No. 4, coach and current ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert tells ATPWorldTour.com. “What a tremendous effort to be in the final every week he’s played. I love the way he goes about his business.”

Nadal is now entering what is traditionally his most productive part of the season: clay-court ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events in Madrid (where he can add points after a third-round loss last year) and Rome and then Roland Garros, where he has won seven titles in the past eight years.

Beyond the clay season, and unlike others in contention for No. 1, Nadal has very few points to defend after last year winning only one match each in Halle and Wimbledon before knee trouble ended his season. In contrast, Djokovic had an exceptionally strong second half of the season, reaching the Wimbledon semi-finals, US Open final and winning three of his last four events of the year, including the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.

So although Nadal is currently fifth in the Emirates ATP Rankings behind No. 2 Roger Federer, No. 3 Andy Murray and No. 4 David Ferrer, he seems best placed to challenge Djokovic, who in 2013 has compiled a 26-2 match record, including titles at the Australian Open, Dubai and Monte-Carlo.

“To me this is the meatiest part of the season,” Gilbert says. “You’ve got two Masters 1000s back to back and then the French and Wimbledon… that’s 6,000 points up for grabs over a short stretch, and what happens during this time will set the tone as to who has a shot of finishing No. 1. Djokovic is in good position now, but it still could be a very tight race.”

The post-Roland Garros period will be particularly challenging for both Federer and Murray. Federer, who holds the record for 302 weeks at No. 1, has points to defend for winning Wimbledon and Cincinnati, and reaching finals at the Olympics (which he can’t defend) and the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. As the reigning Olympic and US Open champion and Wimbledon finalist, Murray has his own trove of points to defend, although Gilbert doesn’t count out his former charge.

“Potentially grass is a tremendous surface for Andy. I think he must win Wimbledon to be in the equation, but if he can do that after having come away from the clay – which is not his best surface - with some points, then he has a shot.

“For Roger it will be tougher because he hasn’t won a title this year and he’s not playing as many tournaments as he once did. A lot can change if he gets hot during this upcoming stretch, but it would be a very difficult proposition to finish No. 1.”

Djokovic is looking to become just the sixth player to finish year-end No. 1 for three straight years in the history of the Emirates ATP Rankings (since 1973) and the first since Federer’s four straight years at No. 1 between 2004-’07. Others to finish No. 1 three (or more) successive years are Pete Sampras (six), Jimmy Connors (five), John McEnroe (four), Ivan Lendl (three).

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