Roger Federer is back at #1. Is he the best player in the game right now? More immediately, is he the favorite when the world’s best return to Wimbledon for the Olympics?
In theory, the world number one should be the favorite, especially on the favorite’s preferred surface. Especially a few weeks after winning a grand slam at the same venue. Yet there is nothing like a consensus: Bettors are generally giving a slight edge to Novak Djokovic, the same man who lost to Federer only a couple of weeks ago. My ranking system also gives the edge to Djokovic.
How is the world number one not number one? Two issues are in play here. First, Federer, at nearly 31 years of age, can’t be expected to keep playing like he did two weeks ago, or like he did last fall. Second, the Olympic draw isn’t likely to substantially affect Djokovic’s chances, but it could cast serious doubt on Federer’s.
For any player, and especially for a thirty-something, past results are no guarantee of future performance. ATP rankings are based entirely on past results, some nearly one year old, weighted as if they happened yesterday. Considering Federer’s career as an arc, with 2012 doubtless located on the downslope, Wimbledon looks more like an aberration than a rebirth. Repeated losses earlier in the year to Djokovic and hiccups against Tommy Haas and Andy Roddick, not to mention a near-disaster against Julien Benneteau, may tell us more than a couple of strong wins against Djokovic and Murray.
This isn’t to say Federer can’t win the gold medal. But he wasn’t the favorite going into Wimbledon, and aside from the order of the ATP rankings, not much has changed since then.
Still lurking are many men who could upset Roger, and that’s where the draw comes in. Before the Olympic draw is released, we need to remember all the players Federer didn’t have to beat en route to his seventh Wimbledon title. His fourth round and quarterfinal opponents were Xavier Malisse and Mikhail Youzhny, players who would make more sense as Fed’s second and third round victims.
Federer has lost to three active players in his Wimbledon career: Rafael Nadal, Tomas Berdych, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Other recent losses on hard courts: Haas, Roddick, and John Isner. He could’ve drawn at least one, or as many as three of those guys at Wimbledon instead of a lineup of journeymen. His Olympic draw may not be so fortunate.
Djokovic, on the other hand, doesn’t have much of anyone to fear. His chances (real or perceived) of Olympic gold won’t change much if Berdych or Tsonga shows up in his quarter.
But to say that Federer is not the favorite doesn’t mean that Novak is an overwhelming one. He gets that honor almost by default. For the first time in what seems like years, we’re entering a major event without a clear frontrunner. Everyone’s flaws have been exposed. Nadal crashed out of Wimbledon and hasn’t won a hard-court event since 2010. Federer’s dominance and health both eluded him in Wimbledon’s middle rounds. Djokovic’s aura of streak-inspired invincibility is long gone.
One of these three men will probably take home the gold. But pick one, and your man is likely to disappoint you.
Update: A couple of hours after I posted this, Nadal withdrew. That betters the chances of Federer and Djokovic. The other winner is David Ferrer, who gets a top four seed. That’s no cakewalk to the semis with such a deep draw, but it’s certainly easier than needing to beat one of the big four just to get to the bronze medal match.