After his spectacular success at the Australian Open, is it time that Novak Djokovic becomes regarded as the chief rival to Rafael Nadal as the best tennis player in the world, rather than the great, 16-time Grand Slam winner, Roger Federer?
The current ATP rankings (31 Jan 2011) have Nadal clear at the top with Federer at No. 2, fractionally ahead of Djokovic at No. 3. That trio are well ahead of Robin Soderling and Andy Murray at Nos. 4 and 5.
Djokovic, of course, not only defeated Andy Murray in Melbourne; he also beat Federer in the semifinal in straight sets, giving him a second successive victory over Federer in Grand Slams after beating the Swiss in five sets in the semifinal of last year's US Open. As a result, Djokovic became only the second player to defeat Federer in consecutive Grand Slam tournaments; the other of course is Nadal.
In between, however, Federer has won all three times that they have met—in the Masters, 1000 semifinal in Shanghai, in the final of the Basel Open in Switzerland and in the semifinal of the ATP World Tour Finals in London in November. In overall terms, Federer enjoys a 13-7 head-to-head advantage over Djokovic.
Perhaps the most worrying statistic for Federer and his army of fans is the fact that he has not been in a Grand Slam final since the 2010 Australian Open over 12 months ago. This follows his incredible run of reaching every single Grand Slam final, with the exception of one (2008 Australia), between July 2005 (Wimbledon) and January 2010 (Australia); a total of 18 finals from 19 tournaments, winning 10 of them.
Prior to his hamstring injury in the quarterfinal against compatriot David Ferrer in Australia, Nadal had been in supreme form, looking quite invincible in his first four matches. The slightly slower Australian hard court suits his game more so than those at the US Open, and for many he looked destined to win his fourth consecutive Grand Slam thus becoming the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four titles.
Assuming he recovers in plenty of time, Nadal will be back to defend his French Open crown on the clay courts in May, where many still believe he is unbeatable. Should he win then he will join Bjorn Borg as the only tennis player in history to win the men’s singles at Roland Garros six times and it is very difficult to see how he can be stopped.
It will be very interesting to see if Federer can stop his run of poor form in the Grand Slams and make the final, something he has achieved four times in the past and which he won in 2009. As most will remember, Federer was knocked out in the quarterfinal last year by big-hitting Swede Robin Soderling, who Nadal was later to beat in the final.
At for Federer's long-term future, it is difficult to see him climbing back to the top of the world rankings with the class of Nadal and emergence of Djokovic, especially since he turns 30 this year but with 16 Grand Slams to his name. Even if his time at the top is coming to an end, there is no doubt about it—he is one of the best players ever, many would argue the best, to play the game.