In case you’ve been busy building your fallout shelter for the outcome of the impending American Presidential election on Tuesday, there is a new top ranked player on the ATP World Tour. Andy Murray be thy name. Thus begins the nWo, the New World Order of tennis … maybe.
After 122 weeks of merciless rule from Novak Djokovic, the top spot was taken over the weekend in Paris by Murray after Milos Raonic withdrew in the BNP Paribas Masters semifinals in Paris. It was anticlimactic for certain, but at least Murray put a cherry on top of the achievement by beating John Isner for the title on Sunday. Murray is now the 26th player to achieve #1 status in the history of the ATP ranking system, which dates back to 1973. He is also the second oldest player (29 years, five months) to get to the top spot for the first time. John Newcombe was the oldest in 1974, debuting at #1 at nearly 31-years of age.
You can make a case that Murray’s ascension to the top has come during a downturn as age, off-court distractions and injuries may have caught up with three quarters of the vaunted “Big Four” in tennis. Roger Federer is now 35 and missed most of 2016 due to a knee injury. Rafael Nadal turned 30 this year and while he did have a solid season, it was far from his glory days when he was a consistent Grand Slam threat. Then there is Djokovic. The Serb turned 29 in May, but age seems to have little to do with his fall from grace. After all, Djokovic completed the career Grand Slam just a week or so after his birthday as he won the French Open. Perhaps that is when it all began to unravel.
Did His Holy Grail Turn Nole’s Season Into Holy Hell?
It might sound strange to some to say that Djokovic no longer being burdened by not winning the French Open was the moment where things began to unwind. There are excuses galore as to why Djokovic is where he is just five months later. Still, I think there is some validity to his mental focus and edge dipping after he conquered Roland Garros in early June. Think about it; Djokovic had been so close with three trips to the French Open final since 2012. Rafael Nadal had blocked him from winning that elusive final Grand Slam to cap off his career slam each year from 2012-2014, doing it in the final twice and semifinals another time. Then came 2015. Djokovic finally vanquished his demons with a win over Nadal in the quarterfinals and seemed locked in to finally break through, but he was denied in the final by Stan Wawrinka. Another year, another failure to capture glory at Roland Garros. Another year to fume and boil over not claiming that elusive title.
When 2016 came and Djokovic was once again in position to stake claim to his first French Open title, you could excuse him if a weight the size of Serbia was jettisoned from his shoulders by his four set win over Andy Murray. The pressure of failing so many times was gone and I do think some of his focus moving forward left him as well. The wheels would begin to wobble for Djokovic at Wimbledon as he was stunned in the third round by Sam Querrey. It was his earliest Grand Slam exit since the French Open in 2009. Rumors begin to float around about an injury to the Serb. Certainly there were issues with his shoulder, but it would also come out that he was having some personal issues as well. The extent of those have been well hidden and frankly are none of our business, but it has gotten so off-the-rails for Djokovic that he left his coaching team behind in Paris in favor of a spiritual guru this past week.
The end result was another disappointing tournament for Djokovic. He was taken out in Paris by Marin Cilic, a man he had beaten in 14 of 14 previous matches. The incredible ride he had taken for 27 months as the top dog in tennis was about to end. Half of his 12 Grand Slam victories came in that time frame and perhaps tennis got a little boring, a little predictable. It’s not Djokovic’s fault, he was just that much better than the field. That too might be a big reason for him finding himself at #2 this week. Not so much complacency at being on top for so long, but burn out. Djokovic so much as admitted it last month, saying that he had lost his fire for the game. No one can blame him for that on top of whatever personal issues he has been going through this year. All of that leads to a new hombre at numero uno.
Andy Murray Never Stops
The Scot/Brit might finally get some of the appreciation that his career deserves. He doesn’t have the smooth, natural beauty of Federer. He doesn’t have the likeable fire of Rafael Nadal during his prime and he’s rarely gotten the better of Novak Djokovic when it counted the most. Murray is 10-24 against the Serb with a 2-8 record in Grand Slams, although those two wins were both for Slam titles it should be pointed out. Still, there are few if any who match the sheer level of determination that Murray has shown, especially within the last few years. The grit. The work ethic. The fitness level that is unmatched. It’s led him to rack up three Grand Slam titles and a Davis Cup win for Great Britain in 2015. Yet still, that #1 ranking seemed like it would elude him, much the way the French Open title had eluded Djokovic.
In early June after Djokovic’s French Open conquest, Murray trailed the Serb by 8,000 points in the rankings. The gap between #1 and #2 seemed like two or three oceans wide. Murray never blinked. He just kept playing. He blocked out whatever talk centered around why Djokovic was falling short in tournaments. Murray kept playing and Murray kept winning. He would win his third Grand Slam at Wimbledon. Murray would defend his gold medal at the Rio Olympics while Djokovic was ousted in the first round by the man Murray would eventually defeat in the final, Juan Martin Del Potro. Murray would fall short a few times, losing the final at the Cincinnati Masters and seeing his run at the U.S. Open cut short in the quarterfinals by Kei Nishikori. He would also see Great Britain defeated in the Davis Cup semifinals, despite a Herculean effort from Murray to play three straight days. But, he kept playing and kept grinding while Djokovic seemed lost in his quest to find an answer to his dip in level.
Murray would rip off three successive titles in Beijing, Shanghai and Vienna in October that cut the insurmountable 8,000 point deficit from June down to just 400 points heading to Paris. He still had his work cut out for him with both Murray and Djokovic having made the final in Paris in 2015. Murray kept playing and Murray kept grinding. And when Djokovic was dumped out earlier than expected, it was Murray who kept playing and winning and finally got himself to the top of the mountain. The grind of the tennis season is among the roughest in sports today. January to November each year. Sure, the top guys have done a better job with age of taking some extended breaks, but it’s still a beat down with hardly a month for an off-season before they have to start thinking about next year.
That to me is what makes Andy Murray special. He has embraced that schedule. He has relished in working harder than anyone to get to where he is on this Monday, November 7th 2016. He is #1 as the nWO takes grip on the ATP World Tour heading to the Tour Finals in London. It’s a remarkable achievement for a player who might not have the best skill set we’ve ever seen, but he might just have the biggest heart and the most desire to get what he wants from this game.
nWo: Short Stay or The New Way?
Now it should not be lost on you nor I that there is still one final stop on this year’s tour schedule. It’s the year-end Tour Finals where the top eight players fight for one last trophy. A trophy that has been Novak Djokovic’s four straight years. Murray carries a 405 point lead to the O2 Arena next week over the Serb. The points breakdown for this event is different than the rest of the season. There are technically no points to defend, the points are simply earned per win. Round Robin wins are 200 points each, a semifinal win is worth 400 and the champ nets an additional 900 points.
There is no comparison in the two groups set up for this year’s Tour Finals, Djokovic has the easier Round Robin matches with first timers Gael Monfils and Dominic Thiem along with Milos Raonic. Murray will have to contend with Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic. Djokovic is 23-0 against his three opponents, but he was 14-0 against Cilic before last week in Paris. Murray meanwhile is 7-2 vs Nishikori, 9-7 vs Wawrinka and 11-3 vs Cilic. Conceivably Djokovic could run unbeaten through his group, while Murray might be fortunate to go 2-1. The key being that Murray really just needs to find a way out of his group and into the semifinals to keep a lead in the rankings.
Then it could all come down to one match, head-to-head for the year-ending top spot. The question really comes down to who is ready to fight for it next week? Andy Murray has to be the answer. He’s fought this hard to get the top spot and you’d expect he doesn’t want to be the guy who held it for a week. Djokovic? Sure you’d think falling out of the top spot would be motivation enough, but his frame of mind right now is very questionable. In all honesty, your truly has been of the mind that losing this top spot might be the best thing to happen to Djokovic … for 2017.
The Serb needs something to strive for and certainly recapturing what was his for 27 months should do that in theory. However, he may need time to clear his head and get away from it all to reboot for 2017. 2016 seems like it should end with Andy Murray on top. It’s been a long, winding road that saw Djokovic dominate the first half of the season and Murray dominate the back half. It feels like Djokovic can’t wait for it to be over, while Murray can’t wait to prove himself again next week. That’s the difference in tennis right now. One man’s burn out is another man’s opportunity. The ATP World Tour despertely needed something to infuse some life into it.
Whether you appreciated Djokovic’s dominance or didn’t, many felt the tour had become stale due to the predictability of seeing him win a vast majority of major tournaments. It’s the same thing people felt with Federer during his prime. It’s a cycle that winds up craving change. We all knew the Tour would come to this crossroads eventually. The day when Djokovic would be dethroned. I don’t know that anyone expected it before the year ended, but here it is.
This is change and change is good. Change can shape the future by holding onto its newfound glory in London and set the stage for something we haven’t seen in nearly three years; uncertainty. The kind of uncertainty that we crave as sports fans. Dynasties are good for the game, but so to are their inevitably fall. It breeds change and right now, change is Andy Murray. Tomorrow, change might be Milos Raonic or Dominic Thiem or perhaps a renewed path of destruction and dominance from Novak Djokovic. That’s what Andy Murray’s ascension to the top spot means, more unpredictability for the game and that’s a good thing.