Top Dop: Nadal, Djokovic Battle for No. 1 Ranking

Greg Del MarContributor IApril 20, 2011

KEY BISCAYNE, FL - APRIL 03:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates after he won match point against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the men's singles championship at the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on April 3, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Novak Djokovic is on fire right now. Coming out of the spring hard court swing, he is undefeated, with the third-best start ever on the men's tour. His confidence is off the charts and he's beating up on his two rivals, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Can anything stop the Djokovic Djuggernaut?

Djokovic has done so well that there is talk of his threatening Nadal for the year-end No. 1 spot. However, there are some reasons to wait a while before jumping on that crowded bandwagon.

First of all, we are headed into the clay court season. Everyone knows this is Nadal's time. He holds unbelievable records on clay: 5 French Open titles, 7 straight Monte Carlo titles, 5 titles at Barcelona, an 81-match winning streak—the most in history on any surface, with only 4 losses in his last 150+ matches.

Djokovic's record on clay is 82-30 lifetime.

That should give pause to those who see Djokovic as a serious challenge to Nadal on clay. Right now, I would give Federer the edge for sure over Novak on clay, and there are several other clay specialists who could upend Djokovic—Almagro, Verdasco, Ferrer among them. There is also Murray, Soderling, and the rest of the Spanish Armada for Djokovic to overcome in every tournament, just to get to Nadal. Some of Novak's losses will come in these tournaments. Expect it. As for Nadal, he fears no one on clay when he's playing anywhere near his best.

As for the rest of the season, there may not be as much there for Djokovic as people think, either. Djokovic did pretty well in the Grand Slams last year:
French Open quarterfinals—360 points
Wimbledon semifinals—720 points
US Open Finals—1200 points

As for Wimbledon, Novak did really well there last year to make the semifinals. He has never come close to winning a title on grass and is 31-11 there. Nadal's career-record on grass is 40-8, with 3 tournament victories. Two of his losses were heavyweight battles with a top-of-his-game Federer at Wimbledon.

Nadal has averaged almost 4500 points per season on clay. If he has an average year again this year and plays well at Wimbledon, Nadal will maintain about a 2000-2500 point advantage over Djokovic heading into the last third of the season.

The last third of the hard court season, Djokovic and Nadal are fairly even in points to defend. If they are reasonably close, Novak could gain some points here, but not huge numbers.

Novak will have some losses this season. Count on it. Djokovic will have at least a few defeats this year. But at which tournaments and at what point will they come. You can expect Federer, Murray, Del Potro and some others to knock Djokovic out in some quarterfinal or semifinal matches before he even gets to play Nadal. Even Federer had several losses in each of his best years, and those were years for the ages, unlikely to be achieved again. You know Federer will take some revenge on Djokovic at least a couple times before the year is out.

But will all of Novak's losses come only in quarterfinal, semifinals, or finals, or will he also have a smattering of losses earlier in a couple tournaments, like the second or third round surprise here and there? Even the great ones have one or two of those every year. Djokovic will have to be nearly perfect all year long.

There is that hope that Nadal will falter. At Miami and Indian Wells, Nadal's serve was uncharacteristically shaky in a few matches. He admitted to nerves in the two finals against Djokovic. Nadal started both matches against Djokovic up a set. Nadal is the best all-time after winning the first set. Once he gets up on you, he closes it out. Nadal had those matches on his racquet and should have won both of them, but came a bit unraveled.

After the two losses against Djokovic, Nadal praised Novak for his excellent start, but noted "On clay, I have more the advantage. We will see what happens on the clay."

Back at home on clay, Nadal warmed up by winning his first tournament of the season, a record 7th straight Monte Carlo crown. Federer commented, "even I've never done anything like that."

Then in his first match in Barcelona, he served up breadsticks for his first opponent, as game gets stronger with each successive match. It is now Nadal's turn to be confident, and he knows it. As it continues, talk at the French Open will not be about who wins the tournament, but like last year, the betting will take place on whether Nadal will win the tournament without conceding a set at Roland Garros for a record 3rd time in his career. Then it will be whether he can win the French-Wimbledon double for a third time.

If this happens, Novak will start to fade into the rear-view mirror. No, for Nadal to lose the No. 1 ranking, he will have to stumble, and stumble fairly badly. If that happens, we have a battle. Anything else, and Nadal will close out another year on top.