Just six months ago, Novak Djokovic was ranked outside the top 20, seemingly racing toward a career meltdown. But here we are in October, and he is declaring himself in the hunt for the ATP's year-end No. 1 ranking.
"I'm really glad I've put myself in a position to compete for No. 1 in the world," Djokovic told reporters shortly before the start of this week's Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai. "Maybe four five months ago that was looking a little far from reach."
Back in May, Djokovic still seemed more preoccupied with the search for contentment and stability than adding to his haul of 12 Grand Slam titles. Now, after winning Wimbledon, the Cincinnati Masters and the US Open, he has won 22 of his past 23 matches. This head of steam puts him on track to becoming the first player since the rankings were started in 1973 to leap from outside the top 20 to No. 1 in the same year.
The ATP must relieved, because without Djokovic, there is no race. Technically, Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro are still alive for the year-end No. 1. There are up to 4,000 points available before the end of the year, but it would take near-perfect tennis from them, combined with horrific letdowns by Djokovic and current world No. 1 Rafael Nadal to turn this into anything but a two-man race.
So let's take a look at where things stand between Nadal and Djokovic, with the ATP points race as our guide.
Djokovic is currently playing the Shanghai Masters, where he won his first-round match Tuesday. Both he and Nadal are scheduled to play the Paris Masters and the ATP World Tour Finals. Like Shanghai, the winner in Paris would earn 1,000 points, and a champion in the round-robin year-enders could earn as many as 1,500 points, if he were to go undefeated along the way.
Why Nadal will be No. 1
Nadal is the front-runner, but with a significant asterisk. He has rarely fared well in the fall season. He retired with a bad knee during his US Open semifinal match and hasn't been seen on court since and won't be until the Paris Masters, which begins Oct. 29. But if his knee is in good shape, he'll be well-rested and his legendary competitive drive and pride will be great assets.
A year ago, he withdrew from the Paris quarterfinals with a right knee injury. Nadal returned at the tour finals (a round-robin event), but lost a thrilling, all-tiebreaker, three-set match to David Goffin. Nadal then withdrew from the event, citing his damaged knee.
Nadal has never won the year-ending tournament, which is the most glaring hole in his résumé. He's also come up empty in Paris. But then, he's missed the Paris Masters eight times in his 14 full years on the tour.
Still, a couple of wins in Paris and one or two in the tour finals could give him an insurmountable lead over Djokovic, especially if the Serb doesn't perform up to his recent standard and make a serious dent in the points gap.
Why Djokovic will be No. 1
He trails Nadal by just 1,035 points. Should Djokovic win Shanghai for a fourth time, he will be just 35 points short of Nadal. Djokovic is at the peak of good health, while Nadal's knees have rebelled against him and sometimes buckled on the hard courts of autumn.
"If you told me four or five months ago that I'd be in this position, fighting for year-end No. 1, having two Slams and the Cincinnati win -- I mean, it would be amazing to sign off on that right away," Djokovic said.
He could even surpass Nadal should he win Shanghai and take a wild card into one of the lesser ATP events next week and accumulate even more points.
Unlike Nadal, Djokovic has been utterly dominant this time of year. He's won Shanghai three times, Paris four times and the year-enders on five occasions.
The above paragraph should tell you all you need to know. Djokovic's autumn success and his transformation in just a few short months has been remarkable. Back during the darker days of 2017 and early 2018, he experienced a failure of motivation and struggled with personal problems. An elbow injury would then force him to undergo minor surgery and affect his stroking mechanics.
Djokovic reminded the media in Shanghai that he had a lot to figure out back in the spring, when he returned to the court too quickly and found himself floundering with a 6-6 record and having to alter his serving motion on the trot.
"I was still trying to coordinate the body and the mind, and everything that was happening post-operation," Djokovic said. "[But] the last three months have been terrific."
Expect him to pass Nadal for the year-end No. 1, perhaps before the ATP World Tour Finals even begin.