Series Stories to Watch: Looking out for No. 1

June 20, 2014 04:45 PM
Last year Rafael Nadal became just the third man in the Open era to win the Western & Southern Open, the Rogers Cup and the US Open in the same year.
Novak Djokovic has reached the US Open final in each of the last four years and won three consecutive Australian Open titles, 2011-13.

By E.J. Crawford

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are unusually familiar opponents. In fact, they have faced off 42 times in their careers, more than any other two men in the Open era.

During this year’s Emirates Airline US Open Series they will again wage a season-long battle, whether they meet on the court or not.

The two men head into Wimbledon separated by fewer than 200 ranking points; Nadal has 12,500 to 12,330 for Djokovic, with Stanislas Wawrinka coming in a distant third at 5,525 points. That means every event this summer can shift the dynamic in the pursuit of the world’s No. 1 ranking, and with it, the coveted No. 1 seed for the 2014 US Open.

Oddly enough, while he will likely enter the Series at No. 2, Djokovic holds the advantage in the race for No. 1. Nadal was sublime last summer, sweeping the Rogers Cup and Western & Southern Open on his way to a second US Open title (where he defeated Djokovic in the final). As a result, the Spaniard has 2,000 points to defend during those same events this year – the rankings are based on a rolling 52-week season, where you gain or lose points each week relative to how you did in that week the previous year – whereas the Serb defends only 540.

Of course, writing off Nadal is a fool’s errand. Last year the two-time Series champion (2008, 2013) became just the third man in the Open era to win the US Open, Western & Southern Open and Rogers Cup in the same summer, joining Patrick Rafter (1998) and Andy Roddick (2003). And with his win at the 2014 French Open (over, you guessed it, Djokovic) he tied Pete Sampras with 14 career Grand Slam singles titles, which trails only Roger Federer’s 17.

Meantime, Djokovic has established himself as the world’s premier hard-court performer. The 2012 Series champion has appeared in four consecutive US Open finals, has won four Australian Open titles and swept the 2014 fall hard-court circuit of Indian Wells and Miami, becoming the first player to do that since, well, himself, in 2011.

Currently, Nadal leads the head-to-head rivalry against Djokovic, 23-19, while Djokovic leads on hard courts, 14-7. So what does it all mean for the 2014 Series season? An epic race for No. 1 between two of the greatest rivals in tennis history.