Roger Federer has started 2012 off with four titles and is giving chase to Novak Djokovic's No. 1 ranking. (SIPA)
With Roger Federer's return to the No. 2 ranking after his win in Madrid, the next logical question is whether he can supplant Novak Djokovic and recapture No. 1 for the first time since May 2010. That would be a tremendous accomplishment for the 30-year-old, who needs only two weeks at No. 1 to eclipse Pete Sampras' record for most weeks (286) atop the rankings.
Here's a look at how it could happen.
Heading into Rome, Federer was 1,770 points behind Djokovic, a gap he could very well close given the fact that Djokovic has to defend titles at Rome, Wimbledon, Montreal and the U.S. Open (as well as the semifinals at the French Open), while Federer's best results are the finals of Roland Garros and semifinals of the U.S. Open. Overall, the Serb has 7,320 points to defend through the U.S. Open, while Federer has only 2,640. That's a huge swing of points up for grabs.
And very generally speaking, Djokovic can only defend his points, while Federer can only gain on him (unless, of course, he crashes out very early in these events).
With 1,200 points to defend at the French Open, Federer's real surge will be on the grass at Wimbledon and the Olympics. Federer lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals in 2011, which earned him a mere 360 points to Djokovic's 2,000 title points. Making the final alone would earn Federer 840 more points. If Djokovic gets there as well, a win for Federer would add another 1,640 points to the Swiss' tab, while Djokovic would lose 800. So that scenario -- Federer beating Djokovic in the Wimbledon finals -- would cause a 2,440-point swing, enough to surpass Djokovic if nothing drastic happens before London.
That, though, depends on how Djokovic does at the French, where he can create a little more separation if he reaches the final or wins. But Federer should also gain points playing the ATP 250 event in Halle, which he didn't play in 2011, so those are basically free points. Federer also has a slight edge at the Olympics, which will be played on his favorite surface. The ATP will award 750 points for a gold medal, 450 for silver and 340 for bronze.
Even if Federer can't catch Djokovic by the Olympics, he'll still have plenty of opportunities through the North American hard-court swing. Federer had a rough go in Montreal and Cincinnati, failing to make it past the quarterfinals of either tournament. He can make up ground at both and then it's on to the U.S. Open.
So that's how Federer can catch Djokovic. But how probable is it? Aside from the fact that he's chasing a guy who hasn't shown a significant dip in form, and he's trying to hold off a Spaniard who's nipping at his heels (Rafael Nadal can recapture the No. 2 ranking with a title in Rome), there are a number of roadblocks in Federer's way.
First and foremost, there's the compacted schedule, which could force Federer to make some tough decisions about which tournaments he wants to play. Due to an ATP rule that allows players with more than 600 career matches to skip one Masters tournaments without a bonus-pool penalty, it's entirely possible that Federer might opt to pass on Montreal or Cincinnati to rest after the grueling grass season and re-energize for a charge at the U.S. Open.
Second, if Federer is going to catch Djokovic, he has to do it before the fall indoor season. Once the roof closes and the men head to Europe in November, Federer has more points to defend than anyone. After all, he finished the post-U.S. Open swing undefeated last year. If Federer is unable to reel in Djokovic by September, his shot at No. 1 could go out the window unless he goes out of his way to try to grab points at the Asian tournaments.
Last, there is, namely, Novak Djokovic. Djokovic can pick up some significant points at Roland Garros. A title in Paris would not only give Djokovic the non-Calendar Slam, but it would also build his point total on Federer. And there's certainly no guarantee that Djokovic won't snatch titles all along his run to the U.S. Open and defend his points in the process.
Admittedly, there's so much guessing and speculating that goes into any attempt to handicap Federer's chances of reclaiming the No. 1 ranking. But we all know how much tennis history means to him and he savors the opportunity to rewrite the record books. He's so close to passing his idol Sampras. His level is there, he's healthy and he's as motivated as ever.