Saturday, July 16, 2011

Novak passes Rafter, ties with Moya

It’s really hard to become the #1 player in men’s tennis. It’s even harder to remain #1. Just ask any of the players who have had that sniff of greatness only to watch the rest of their careers plummet away into oblivion. Andy Roddick, for example, once spent 13 glorious weeks as the top-ranked men’s tennis player in the world. But 13 was clearly not his lucky number. He seems to have lost top form along with what’s left of his mojo.

This is at least partly because it is really really hard to become #1 in men’s tennis. And as hard as it is to achieve this goal, it’s ten times harder to remain at the top of the pile. Withstanding that competition week in and week out is not only hard on the body, but it is even more challenging of your mental fortitude, and quite probably wrenches your soul.

It must also be difficult to keep a perspective on the responsibilities involved in being #1. Your time suddenly no longer becomes entirely your own. You are expected to fully represent the entire sport. It will be interesting to see how Djokovic embraces this challenge. I would hope that he would do at least as well a job as Federer.

More than any other player, I believe that Roger Federer not only rose to this challenge but he fully embraced it. Becoming #1 requires selfishness. Remaining #1 also demands of you the selflessness to address the needs of your sport. Federer understood this like no other before or since. For this I am deeply proud of him.

Djokovic currently stands at the top of men’s tennis. His reign has thus far lasted a total of two weeks. His closest challenger, Rafael Nadal, can take away this spot before the year is over. And there is no doubt in my mind that the real contest between these two men is for the position as #1 in tennis. Sure winning tournaments are great too, but the real contest is for the honor of being called the best in the world.

There is no other reason why Rafa played Barcelona instead of using that week for rest and preparation for Roland Garros. He was seeking to shore up points that he could cash in later and possibly become #1 again. This I believe is the honor that drives both of these men. And isn’t it interesting how much Federer has played the role of incidental tie-breaker.

It must gall the highly competitive Federer that his chances of equaling and passing Pete Sampras’ dominance of the #1 slot seem to be becoming bleaker. Sampras had a total of 286 weeks at #1. Federer has 285. Two more weeks and he can make a different and lasting kind of history. Already he has the record of holding the most consecutive weeks at #1 – 237 weeks that he accumulated between FEB2004 and AUG2008. I don’t believe that this record will ever be eclipsed. I think that Federer is still playing tennis today because of the dream of getting those two extra weeks. In other words, I believe that he is playing tennis for history. And it is so totally worth it.

Blocking his path are two men – Rafael Nadal who has 102 weeks total as the #1 player, and Novak Djokovic who has only two. But Djokovic should not feel badly about this. Everyone starts at one, and most tennis players never even accomplish that much. Besides, with two weeks of dominance, he has already passed Australia’s Patrick Rafter who has the ignominy of being the only player in history to last only a single week at the #1 spot. (Rafter also has the pointless honor of being the only player to have his racket strings blown open with a Sampras serve. I will never forget that hilarious moment.)

With two weeks of dominance, Djoko has now tied with Carlos Moya who spent two sweet weeks as the best tennis player in the world. I’ve always believed that if Moya had celebrated a little less and focused a little more, he might have eked out a few more weeks of dominance. He certainly had the talent to do it.

This week I saw pictures of Djokovic with his girlfriend Jelena Ristic enjoying the sun and beaches of St. Tropez. I don’t at all fault him for taking some time off. He has truly earned it. As long as he doesn’t do a Moya and begin to lose focus. And as long as he remains aware that Rafa and Uncle Toni are probably somewhere darkly planning, while Federer with Annacone is probably busy shoring up his confidence that yes, he can still do it.

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