Novak Djokovic will almost certainly finish 2012 as the No.1 ranked player in the world, or in the diffident parlance of the ATP’s marketing department, the ATP World Tour Champion. With only three weeks of the regular season left to play, he holds a race lead of 2,155 points over reigning world No.1 – but not reigning World Tour Champion – Roger Federer. In order for Federer to overtake Djokovic, he would need to win every remaining event into which he is currently entered, including Basel, the Paris Indoors and the World Tour Finals in London. Based on recent history, there’s no compelling reason to suppose Federer won’t win all of those. He did it last year, and almost managed it the year before. However, even if Federer once again cleans up indoors, Djokovic, by winning the Shanghai Masters, has ensured himself a reasonable shot at being crowned ATP World Tour Champion anyway. He only needs 846 points to put it beyond doubt. The real question, for me, is whether this accolade is really as important as its grandiose title avers.
I’ve never found it to be especially important, and, as shaky as my memory might be, I don’t recall ever hearing it mentioned at all through my first dozen years of following the sport. The first time I can really remember it being paraded as a noteworthy achievement unto itself was in 1998, when someone reminded us that Jimmy Connors had contrived to end the year as the No.1 ranked player no fewer than five times, and that Pete Sampras now had a decent chance to surpass this. Suddenly it turned out that year-end No.1 mattered.
The tale of Sampras’ quest has grown in the telling, with the prevailing mythology holding that in order to ensure he finished ahead of Marcello Rios that year he entered himself into any event he could find, no matter how obscure. It has been elevated to the status of a grimly heroic death-march. It’s true that once Sampras recovered from the injury he’d sustained at the US Open he played every single week, but the tournaments weren’t that out-of-way: Stockholm, Vienna, Masters events in Stuttgart and Paris. Mostly they were played on very fast carpet surfaces, which with Sampras’ serve meant that even the diciest matches turned out comparatively short by today’s standards. The pick of those matches, incidentally, was his loss to Richard Krajicek in the Stuttgart semifinals.
It’s probably worth mentioning that Sampras also sported a goatee through this period, possibly as a direct challenge to Rios, who usually had him covered when it came to facial hair. It is perhaps the only time that the world No.1 ranking has been fought over by bearded men. As it happened, Rios got injured and Sampras coasted over the line to become to only man to finish the season as No.1 six times. The fact that he did it six times in a row is a record that will presumably endure for some years yet. If Federer somehow manages to hold off Djokovic this year he will equal the total number of years, but they haven’t been consecutive. There have been gaps, which I will come to.
Fast forward a couple of years, to 2000, and the ATP has revamped the tour (you’ll note I’ve switched to a more urgent present tense). There is the New Balls Please campaign, and the Super Nine series has been rebranded as the Masters Series. The venerable 52 week rolling Entry System, which determines the actual rankings and is necessary to work out who gets into any given tournament, is deemed too esoteric for the average fan, and is nudged aside to make way for the more simplistic Champion’s Race. All players begin each year at zero points, and accumulate them as the year goes on. By the season’s conclusion, Gustavo Kuerten accumulates slightly more points than Marat Safin in the final match of the year, defeating Andre Agassi in the final of the Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon before an adoring partisan crowd. At a single stroke he seemingly vindicates both the Race and the New Balls campaign. For the ATP, it is a tremendous coup.
It was also a tremendous coincidence. Finishing the year at No.1 means that you have accumulated more points than anyone else over the previous year, but then so does the Entry System. The rankings already function on a rolling 52 week system, and anyone who achieves the No.1 ranking at any time has done so based on a full year’s worth of results. In the simplest sense, the man who finishes No.1 is the one who just happens to have the top ranking in the week the season ends. It’s a rare and special achievement, but, I would argue, no more rare or special than holding the No.1 ranking in May or February. Given that the tour then enjoys an all-too-brief rest period, the putative World Tour Champion also enjoys the added perk of retaining that ranking uncontested for a month or so, but that’s about the only tangible difference. The tennis season isn’t really like those of other sports. It has a shape, but no momentum to the end, and you could just as easily say that it begins with the US hardcourts in July, and ends with Wimbledon. It would make little difference.
In any case, the calendar season following Kuerten’s glorious moment commenced, as they all do, with the Australian Open. This was won by Agassi, who defeated Arnaud Clement in the final. Reigning World Champion Kuerten bombed out in an early round, which was his usual tactic in Melbourne. Agassi therefore moved to the top of the Race, and Clement to second. Clement retained this position for months. Each week the ATP’s television program would announce the Race standings – with no mention of the actual rankings – with Clement in second spot, notwithstanding that his actual ranking had only moved up to No.12 (he eventually made it to No.10). It became glaringly obvious that the Race was quite irrelevant as a metric of anything until much later in the season, which is to say once the Race standings grew closer to those of the Entry System. This explains why the Race has largely been abandoned, and now only returns as an item of interest later in the season, when the ATP website starts trumpeting the Race to London, meaning qualification for the Tour Finals. The Entry System has long since returned to primacy as the most reliable means of ranking players.
In 2009 Federer became the first man since Ivan Lendl to regain the year end No.1 ranking, which I strongly suspect was as much news to Lendl as it was to me. It was talked up at the time, but seemed pretty abstruse even by the standards of Federer’s collection of records, some of which are obscure to the point of perversity. Upon hearing it, I wondered if I’d heard right. At first I thought they were saying he was the first player since Lendl to regain the No.1 ranking. This was obviously wrong, of course, but had it not been it would have been well-worth a comment. But it was merely as stated. He was once more World Tour Champion – the term is as tiresome to write as to consider – having relinquished it to Rafael Nadal the year before. I should note that Nadal in turn achieved the same feat in 2010. But I maintain that merely getting back to No.1 at all is the real achievement, regardless of the date at which you happen to do it. If Federer ends this year as No.1, he’ll become the only man to regain the allegedly coveted title of World Tour Champion twice. I’m not convinced that is precisely the accolade he is striving for, having recently become the only man to reach 300 weeks as world No.1, a record that surely means far more.
Nonetheless, Federer apparently disagrees with me on at least one level, although he thankfully hasn’t come out and chastised me publicly. He clearly feels the World Tour Champion title is worth pursuing, although I’d venture that his continued toils owe as much to not wanting to give up the top ranking at all. I can’t imagine he played Shanghai merely to please Rolex, especially with death-threats adding unneeded spice. He has announced that he will indeed be defending his title at the Paris Indoors, despite a widespread assumption that he’d give it a miss this year. He needs those points. Djokovic, on the other hand, needs fewer points to make it certain, and isn’t playing until Bercy. If he wins it, he’ll gain 1,000 points, and be declared the champion of the year. If he doesn’t, the Tour Finals will gain some added excitement. I suppose that isn’t a bad thing.