Djokovic embraces challenge to regain No. 1 ranking

LONDON — If Novak Djokovic wins the ATP Finals for the sixth time next weekend, he will equal a record held by Roger Federer. Depending on the performances of Rafael Nadal over the coming eight days, it could also secure the year-end world No. 1 ranking for the sixth time, which would equal the record held by Pete Sampras.

When he won Wimbledon in the summer to claim his 16th Grand Slam title, Djokovic said his main goal is to chase down and overhaul Roger Federer (20) and Rafael Nadal (19) at the top of the list of all-time Grand Slam winners. To Djokovic, just like to all great champions, records matter.

Given his record in London, where he has won four of his five ATP Finals titles, Djokovic looks hugely confident and is likely to take some stopping once again. The winner of the Paris Masters last weekend, he kicked off his title bid in London’s O2 on Sunday with an ultra-confident 6-2, 6-1 victory over Matteo Berrettini of Italy in his first round-robin match.

In an era when Federer and Nadal have achieved as much as they have, it is incredible to think that Djokovic could end up with more Grand Slam titles than them both. At 32, he is healthy and as fit as ever, and if he stays away from injuries, he will surely have many opportunities to add to his Grand Slam total and perhaps overtake the other two.

Being No. 1 is not for everyone. Some, like Naomi Osaka, have struggled to cope with the pressure and extra demands it brings. Others, like Federer and Djokovic, seem to enjoy everything that goes with it. And having fought so hard to get there in the first place — it took four years for Djokovic to go from No. 3 to No. 1 — he also embraces the status that it brings, on and off the court.

“In my personal opinion it’s one of the two biggest achievements you can have as a professional competitor and tennis player, winning a Grand Slam and being No. 1 in the world at the end of the season,” Djokovic said on the eve of the ATP Finals.

“At this stage of my career, obviously in terms of goals and achievements, that’s right at the top, but in order for me to be in the position to battle for that year-end No. 1, I understand that I have to be healthy and schedule well.”

Djokovic also takes the role of No. 1 seriously. While Sampras, for example, generally steered well clear of politics, Djokovic has been president of the ATP Player Council since 2016 and has led ongoing attempts to increase the share of tournament revenue the players earn in prize money at Grand Slams.

The job has not been without controversy, not least his purported role in the decision not to renew the contract of Chris Kermode, who steps down as the CEO and chairman of the ATP at the end of the year. Andrea Gaudenzi, the former Italian player, will be the new chairman.

His close relationship with Justin Gimelstob also left him open to criticism. Gimelstob, a former player and a key figure behind the scenes in the ousting of Kermode, resigned as a player board representative after he was convicted of a battery charge for an attack on a former friend, a charge that was reduced to a misdemeanor after the American agreed to plead no-contest.

On the eve of Wimbledon, after a seven-hour meeting of the ATP Player Council, Djokovic told reporters that his team would like him to stand down, but he stayed on because he felt it is an important time for the sport.

Considering the off-court distractions, it is even more impressive that Djokovic has maintained his place at the top of the sport. At Wimbledon, he was quizzed on politics after each of his first few matches but somehow kept his eyes on the prize and took it, saving two match points to beat Federer in an epic final to win Wimbledon for the fifth time.

At the US Open in September, his Davis Cup teammate Janko Tipsarevic said Djokovic had to be careful not to ruin his chances of extended success on the court.

“On the one hand, tennis should be grateful that the world No. 1 should be working so hard for the good of everyone,” Tipsarevic told a small group of reporters. “But as a friend, I’m telling him, what are you doing? You should be focusing on doing everything you can to become the best tennis player of all time.”

It’s not a situation he would choose but at times, it has seemed that Djokovic almost enjoys playing the villain, on and off the court. Hugely respected for his achievements and play, he has never received the sheer adulation that Federer and Nadal get, something he addressed at Wimbledon when he beat Federer despite the best efforts of the crowd.

“At times you just try to ignore it, which is quite hard,” Djokovic said at the time. “I like to transmute it in a way. When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak.’ It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”

Heading into London, Djokovic trailed Nadal by 640 points at the top of the world rankings. With 200 points per group win, 400 for a semifinal win and 500 for winning the title, Djokovic has to at least reach the final to have a chance of becoming No. 1.

His form, his London history and his quest for history, means the battle looks likely to go to the wire. Djokovic, as always, will give it his all as he continues to cement his legacy.