It has taken Andy Murray 11 years to become the top-ranked tennis player but as he gears up to go at it again in 2017, there’s good reason to expect him to hang on to it for a good while.
At 29, the Scot reached the top by producing his best, most consistent tennis over a six-month period, winning a second Wimbledon title, a second Olympic gold and, beginning at London’s Queen’s Club in June, six other events, culminating in a first Barclays ATP World Tour Finals title, again in London earlier this month.
“I would obviously like to stay there," he told reporters at the O2 Arena in London after securing the No. 1 ranking at the end of the year ahead of Novak Djokovic by beating his old friend and foe in straight sets in the ATP championship match.
“I’m aware that’s going to be extremely difficult because I had a great year this year. I only managed to do it by one match. To repeat that again next year is going to be extremely difficult.”
Although Murray will start the new season with a lead of only 630 points over Djokovic, the Scot is well-placed to remain top dog until at least the Monte Carlo tournament in April.
As far as the relatively convoluted ranking system goes, 630 points is not a big lead. However, since the rankings are calculated on a rolling 52-week basis, players effectively have to defend their performance at a particular event the previous year to maintain their total ranking points.
That means that when they begin the Australian Open in January, Djokovic, as the champion from 2016, will be defending 2,000 points to Murray’s 1200 he earned for reaching the finals. Murray and Djokovic have played each other in four of the last six finals so it’s not unlikely they’ll contest another title match in Melbourne on Jan. 29. Should Murray beat the Serb, for example, then there would be a big swing of 1600 points in the Scot’s direction.
The big thing in Murray’s favor is that Djokovic dominated the first few months of 2016, winning Doha, the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami, as well as a quarter-final effort in Dubai, for a combined 4,340 points. Murray picked up 1200 points in Melbourne and only 90 more to the end of Indian Wells, making a total of 1290.
That means that with the exception of Dubai, where 500 points are on offer, Djokovic cannot improve his points total before the clay courts of Monte Carlo in early April while Murray could add points in every event he plays in.
There are of course a number of big ifs there.
Djokovic is 4-0 in Australian Open finals against Murray. But while the Scot is in the form of his life, it remains to be seen whether Djokovic will be able to regain the focus and form that made him so unbeatable in the first half of the year and culminated in him completing the career grand slam at the French Open.
Since winning his fourth straight major at Roland Garros in June, Djokovic has been mediocre by his own lofty standards, losing early at Wimbledon and the Olympics and getting dethroned as the US Open champion in the finals in New York by Stan Wawrinka in September.
“The first six months were outstanding,” Djokovic’ coach Boris Becker told CNN earlier this month. “His pinnacle was winning the French Open and winning four majors in a row. It hasn’t been done since 1969 by a player called Rod Laver.
“Naturally, his motivation was a bit off afterwards. He really didn’t know what the next big goal would be.”
With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal coming back from injuries, there could be a real battle at the top. Although it’s unlikely the 35-year-old Federer and 30-year-old Nadal will be able to dominate the game they used to, both will be more than capable of at least the odd big performance – Nadal surely at the French Open and Federer at Wimbledon, at least – and therefore the points may get shared around more than usual.
Although Becker said he expects Djokovic to bounce back in 2017, Murray tops the rankings for a reason; he was the best player over 2017 – Djokovic did win two grand slams to his one, but Murray won the Olympics and the ATP World Tour Finals and reached more finals.
This is his time and he may get to enjoy it for a while yet.