Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and the pursuit of more ranking history

Between them, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal hold the record for a combined stretch at number one in the world rankings

federer and nadal
Raferl Nadal and Roger Federer Photo: Rafa Nadal Academy by Movistar

For the Rogers Cup in Montreal, which begins this Saturday with the qualifying rounds, the last week or so has brought one blow after another.

First came the news that four-time and defending champion Novak Djokovic had decided to withdraw from the rest of the season to heal his chronic elbow injury.

Then the US Open champion and world No4, Stan Wawrinka, announced that he too would miss the rest of the year to treat a knee problem that hindered his grass swing.

World No6 and Wimbledon runner-up, Marin Cilic, was next to pull out of Montreal with an adductor injury, and just yesterday came a final disappointment—though not an entirely unexpected one—as world No1 and three-time Rogers Cup champion, Andy Murray, was forced to withdraw from the tournament.

The Briton had carried a hip injury through the grass swing, limped his way through practice sessions at Wimbledon, and made it to the quarter-finals before losing a painful five-setter to Sam Querrey.

Four of the top six men in the world, then, would play no part in Montreal. And there may have been a collective holding-of-breath over a fifth member of the sixth.

Roger Federer had put together a remarkable run through the first half of the season following extended breaks—his Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami titles came after a six-month absence to rehab from knee surgery, and he missed the entire clay season to focus on grass. It paid off, with victories in Halle and Wimbledon.

What is more, Federer had not played the tournament that bears his name since 2014, and had not appeared in the Montreal iteration since 2011.

So when he admitted, in the aftermath to Wimbledon, that “Now we have to sit down tomorrow and decide what we’re going to do with Canada or not,” the way was open for another few weeks of recuperation away from the courts.

And his eye was surely on the Cincinnati title that he was unable to defend last year—a Masters that he has won seven times—and on giving himself the best possible chance of reclaiming the US Open title nine years after last winning in New York. Victory there would give him an Open record six titles and his 20th Major. It may even reclaim the No1 ranking.

However finally, the Rogers Cup got good news: Federer would indeed join the field, where he would be No2 seed to Rafael Nadal’s No1—the first time in over six years that these two tennis rivals would top the seedings in a Masters tournament.

nadal and federer

Photo: Rafa Nadal Academy by Movistar

And it is that very presence of Nadal that could thwart Federer’s ambitions for the rest of the year. For while these oldest of adversaries—the Swiss turns 36 this week, Nadal was 31 in June, and they played the first of their 37 matches in 2004—have dominated the honours board between them this year, Nadal was the first to qualify for the World Tour Finals after winning his 10th Roland Garros title. He also won Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, and made the finals in three more tournaments, twice losing out to Federer.

And that set up Nadal to reclaim the No1 ranking for the first time in three years, precisely nine years after he first reached No1. With the withdrawal of Murray from the tournament, all Nadal has to do is reach the semi-finals in Montreal, a tournament he has won three times.

But although Federer cannot reach the top next week, if Nadal falls early in Montreal and Cincinnati, and the Swiss is victorious, he could do so before the US Open.

And so Federer and Nadal, two men who last year slipped down the ranks via shredded schedules and serious injuries, and were ranked 17 and nine respectively when they contested the Australian title, are now favourites to top the rankings from next week until the end of the season.

And that is, in the context of their history, an extraordinary prospect. For they held the No1 ranking between them from February 2004 until July 2011, and together they also filled the top two places unbroken for 211 weeks from 2005 to 2009. They went on to be the top two ranked men at year-end for six straight seasons: 2017 could make it seven.

But with Djokovic and Wawrinka out of contention for the remainder of the year, and Murray with five titles and 5,460 points to defend after his gut-busting surge to No1 in 2016, it is hard to see any other scenario—barring, of course, unforeseen injuries to the two protagonists.

Federer was keen to play down his ambitions for returning to No1 when the possibility was raised at Wimbledon—though shining through that ‘playing down’ were very clear hints that the Swiss competitive juices were already flowing.

“Of course [Murray] could start winning again, and we [Federer and Nadal] also have to win again. But at some stage, if he starts dropping points, we’ll just get there. [And] I hope it’s me not Rafa [smiling].

“Because it would mean a lot to me to get back to world No1. I was just trying to explain that I haven’t thought about it a whole lot yet. I have to speak to the team, and decide how much I’m going to chase it for the near future and maybe get to No1 at least one more time in my career. Or is it actually maybe a goal to finish the year as No1, which is even a bigger deal? But for me maybe there’s no difference at this stage of my career.”

No difference, because whether next month or at the end of the year, Federer would become the oldest men’s No1 in the Open era.

More ranking milestones for Federer and Nadal

· Federer could take Ivan Lendl’s record as oldest year-end No1 and take Andre Agassi’s all-time oldest No1 record: The former was days short of 30, the latter 33 and a half.

· Federer owns the record for weeks at No1: 302

· Federer owns the record for consecutive weeks at No1: 237

· Federer is joint second with Jimmy Connors for year-end No1s, and could equal Pete Sampras’s record six this year

· Federer is the only man to claim four year-end No1s without losing the top spot throughout

· Only four players have regained the year-end No1 ranking: Lendl, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Nadal is the only one to regain it twice, and he could make it three times this year

· Four times, the year-end No1 has been clinched by September: twice by Federer, and once each by Nadal and Djokovic

· Between them, Federer and Nadal hold the record for a combined stretch at No1 (February 2004 until July 2011) and combined unbroken stint as Nos1 and 2 (211 weeks)

· Federer (first with 471) and Nadal (second with 411) hold Open era record for most weeks in the top two

· Both men are among the top five for weeks in top three, weeks in top four, weeks in top five, and weeks in top 10 (Federer 771 weeks, Nadal 641 weeks)

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