For the second time in the last four years, the ATP year-end No. 1 ranking is coming right down to the wire between two of tennis’ biggest stars.
Only 640 points separate Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, meaning the legends will be battling it out at the ATP Finals this coming week for the privilege of ending the season atop the world rankings.
Nadal enters the tournament at No. 1, looking to finish in the top spot for the fifth time, which would tie him with Djokovic, Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors.
Djokovic, who lost the top spot to Nadal on Monday after holding it for all of 2019, is trying to tie Pete Sampras for most year-end No. 1 finishes at six.
The Serbian found himself in a similar scenario four years ago, when he entered the final event of the season hot on the heels of Andy Murray. The top spot came right down to a winner-take-all final, which Murray won for his lone year-end No. 1 finish to date.
The odds of the race being decided in the final are slim, but there are plenty of avenues for Djokovic to snatch it back and finish the year at No. 1 for the second-straight season.
Nadal controls his own fate since he arrives in London with the lead. There are two ways he can clinch the top spot regardless of Djokovic’s result: win the title, or go undefeated in the round robin and advance to the final.
While the Spaniard enters London with the advantage, however, Djokovic has a far better record at this event than his rival. The Serbian has won it five times and has reached the final every time he has played the year-end championships since 2012 (he failed to qualify in 2017), although his last title came back in 2015.
Nadal has never won the ATP Finals, making it the biggest title missing from his resume. He has reached the final twice, losing to Federer in 2010 and Djokovic in 2013.
The last time a player entered the year-end championship not ranked No. 1 but finished the year in the top spot was 2001, when Lleyton Hewitt clinched it by winning the Masters Cup.
Update? Ok, I’m in London happy to be here. Taking it day by day after Paris (small abdominal tear). I need to see how things go, started serving yesterday very slowly. Right now the main goal is to be ready on Monday following the protocols that the doctor gave me
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) November 8, 2019
One important factor at the tournament is Nadal’s health. He withdrew from the Paris Masters last week with an abdominal tear, but hopes to be ready for his opening match. Even if he isn’t, he could end up at number one without hitting a single ball.
If Djokovic does not reach the final, no matter the round robin results, Nadal finishes the year at No 1.
If Nadal does play and wins two in the round robin, Djokovic has to win the title to catch him. For the Spaniard, as long as he matches Djokovic win-for-win or does better before the final, he clinches it.
But if Djokovic wins more round-robin matches and takes the title, he will sneak past Nadal and snatch the top spot.
Nadal has gone undefeated in the round robin three times in his career: 2010, 2012 and 2015.
However, he has the far more difficult group, contending with the red-hot Daniil Medvedev, defending champion Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, one of only seven players to beat Nadal this year.
While Djokovic will have to battle Federer in the round robin, Dominic Thiem and Matteo Berrettini pose far less of a threat than the opponents in Nadal’s group.
Djokovic has gone undefeated five times and has only lost once in the round robin at the ATP Finals over his last six appearances. That loss was to group rival Federer.
— ATP Tour (@atptour) November 8, 2019
The only scenario in which a Nadal-Djokovic title match would also decide the race for No. 1 would be if they met in the final with Djokovic having won more round-robin matches. In that case, the champion would also take the No. 1 ranking.
Of their ATP-record 54 meetings, five have come at the year-end championship, four of them at the 02 in London. Djokovic leads 3-2 overall and 3-1 in London. Nadal’s lone win at this venue came in the 2010 round robin, but Djokovic has won their last two meetings, the 2013 final and 2015 semifinal, both in straight sets.
Djokovic will kick off his quest for history on Sunday afternoon against Berrettini. Assuming he is healthy, Nadal’s campaign will begin Monday night against Zverev.