Novak Djokovic's quarterfinal loss to Stanislas Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open cost him 1,640 points in the ATP Rankings. He trails No. 1 Rafael Nadal by 3,710 points, but it's a gap that can be made up quickly in the next few months.
How does Djokovic return to the top of tennis? He no longer holds a Grand Slam title but holds a sizable lead (ranging from 4,910-6,265) over No. 3 Wawrinka and the next five contenders. As usual, his target will be Rafael Nadal and winning Grand Slam titles.
So let's take the perspective of the Djokovic team and plot a course to knock off Nadal. What does he need to do to get back his No. 1 ranking as soon as reasonably possible?
Numbers Game with Upcoming Top Tournaments
We're not going to expect a reprisal of Djokovic's 2011 43-match winning streak. It's possible he could get back the No. 1 ranking before the French Open, if Nadal were to have more injury problems or unexpectedly fall apart. But we will count on the Spanish nemesis being his usual bullish self.
However, Djokovic can control his destiny and take the No. 1 ranking by prioritizing these tournaments:
Indian Wells: Nadal is the defending champion here with 1,000 points to defend. Last year, Djokovic reached the semifinals (360 points). If Djokovic were to defeat Nadal in the final, he would gain 640 points for the title and knock off 400 points from Rafa's total. This is a minimum gain of 1,040 points. It would be more if Nadal is bounced earlier.
Monte Carlo: Djokovic must defend Monte Carlo. If not, it's Nadal who will likely take advantage and gain at least 400 points with a title victory. Besides, it would be nice to pick up Nadal's gauntlet and throw it right back. Another win at Nadal's second favorite venue is a psychological boost for the French Open. Put more doubt back into Nadal.
Madrid: Last year's second-round upset by Grigor Dimitrov left Djokovic with only 10 points. Meanwhile, Nadal won this title versus Wawrinka, but it's not his favorite clay-court venue and it would be less surprising to see him fall here. Djokovic's title would net a minimum gain of 1,590 points.
Rome: A disappointing 2013 quarterfinals loss left Djokovic with only 180 points here. If he wins the title, Djokovic stands to gain 820 points and drop Nadal for at least 400 points. This is a minimum gain of 1,220 points.
French Open: This tournament is everything for Djokovic, the title he craves and the tournament for him to almost surely swing the No. 1 ranking. Last year he lost to Nadal in the semifinals, meaning that a victory at Roland Garros would increase his rankings points from 720 to 2,000, and it would drop Nadal at least 800 points (if he is a finalist). The French Open title would net a minimum gain of 2,080 points.
Djokovic can mathematically take the No. 1 ranking by holding Monte Carlo and winning Indian Wells, Madrid and Rome. The French Open would be the knockout blow and the more likely target since we are not expecting a perfect stretch in arguably the toughest and most important part of the tennis calendar.
There are mid-level tournaments in February that will impact Nadal and Djokovic to a moderate degree. The Miami tournament in March is an opportunity for both players to improve their rankings, especially for Nadal who did not play last year.
Nadal will need his usual Herculean dominance on clay if he is to retain his No. 1 ranking by Wimbledon. If Djokovic takes the baton, he will be standing atop the world once again.
There is no court Djokovic cannot conquer. Federer (in recent years) and Andy Murray are not as keen on clay. Nadal's overworked body would rather avoid unforgivable hard courts and slippery grass; his autumn indoor-season results have never dominated.
The Serbian can win anytime, anywhere. The amazing thing is his indefatigable energy and spirit. How does he avoid injuries and burnout? Sure, the strain shows at time, and he is not a machine, but he has proven to be the most durable of the Big Three and Murray. It's as if he must survive at a futuristic life and death game akin to Richard Bachman's The Running Man. He refuses to rest, and in fact he thrives like few players have ever done.
It's not in Djokovic's nature to take it easy and recharge. He keeps coming back for more battles.
Aggressive and Intelligent
Djokovic's technical bread and butter are his line-hugging groundstrokes and creative angles. His backhand is particularly lethal in attacking opponents' short shots.
Most important, he plays with intelligence. He usually finds the right times to unleash his best shots, when the percentages are in his favor. He understands when to set up his opponent and when to finish off the rally. This is particularly important in his transition from defense to offense. He can reset a losing rally and turn the tables.
Each year, his patience and footwork on clay has gradually improved. If Nadal slips a whit, Djokovic will be his heir apparent. Even with Nadal's best tennis, Djokovic knows he can win anyway. His time could very well arrive this year, and his motivation will be as high as ever.
On hard courts, Djokovic is best when he doesn't settle back too far beyond the baseline. This was frequently a problem in summer 2012. It negates his magnificent control and the pressure he can put on his opponent. He is most effective when picking up the ball early with his offense and robbing his opponent of time for ideal court position and footwork.
The key is for Djokovic to continually evolve his best aggressive tennis. Djokovic and his new coach, Boris Becker, will look for him to finish early and follow up excellent approach shots at the net. The ideal example of this was his 2013 Australian Open title. He turned a competitive grinding match with Andy Murray into his own advantage by covering the net for 35 winners in 41 attempts. He also held his serve without a break.
Playing With His Personality
Tennis looks fun for Djokovic when he is playing great. It's not so much that he seems to have fun because he is winning, but that his pure enjoyment of playing tennis seems to fuel his best results. So much of his personality shines though his game. It's as if he would be just as happy going out to a Serbian schoolyard to hit groundstrokes with Janko Tipsarevic with nothing on the line except conversation and laughter.
But make no mistake about it. Djokovic lights up at the challenge of being the best player in the world. It's a dream he had since childhood, and though fulfilled, still feels like unfinished business.
Tennis fans can feel his desire to play and be a champion. He plays with his heart, even when things do not go his way on the court. When it is time to celebrate a marathon match, he does not hold back. Pure emotion and pure joy, but his manner of expression is his own. He respects his opponents and conveys this consistently in his interviews. He respects tennis.
The chase for No. 1 could heat up in the next few months, but for Djokovic this is really just another important stretch of what should be a few more great years of tennis.
Is his best tennis yet to come?