Can Roger Federer get back to No. 1?

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A few weeks ago, it would have seemed unfathomable to ask – a pipe dream by Roger Federer junkies living in the past. Today it’s a realistic possibility. Can Roger Federer, at 35 years old, actually make it back to No. 1?

Oh, how the landscape can change. Late last June, Novak Djokovic was such a dominant force in tennis that he nearly doubled the rankings points of world No. 2 Andy Murray. He was halfway to a Grand Slam and a seemingly unstoppable force. Meanwhile, Federer was about to call it quits on a season, the result of an injury first suffered in the most dad-life way ever: giving his twins a bath. At 34 and facing a long recovery, it was finally safe to legitimately wonder what people have for almost eight years: Is the end near?

Fast forward to today. Djokovic’s game is in shambles and his head appears to be even worse. Andy Murray has had a rough start to 2017 but no one’s suggesting it’s anything more than early-season rust. Meanwhile, Federer won a surprise Australian Open title (his first Slam in five years) and just emerged from the most stacked quarter brackets of the decade to win at Indian Wells. Two months into the season, there’s a familiar name atop the rankings: Federer, Roger (SUI).

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No, not the official ones, the rankings Federer has topped for a record 302 weeks. Federer’s only No. 6 in those – which is still stunning given that he entered Melbourne ranked No. 17. But the 2017 rankings, The Race to London as it’s called, which only accrue points from this calendar year, are topped by Federer and it’s not particularly close.

The regular ATP rankings work on a rolling system that resets every week (only a player’s points from the last 52 weeks are used). Federer earned 2,000 points for his Australian Open win, for instance, but only jumped 1,280 points in the rankings, as the 720 points he earned from making the 2016 semifinals were wiped from the books. At Indian Wells, it was a complete positive – Federer gained 1,000 points with his victory as he hadn’t played the tournament the preceding year. That’s going to be the case most of the year. With only four tournaments to defend and none after Wimbledon, Federer has just 1,100 points that’ll come off his total with the chance to gain thousands. It puts No. 1 in play.

Barring an unexpected tear through the spring and summer, Federer’s best chance to get to No. 1 will come late in the year, when he gets closer to Djokovic and Murray in terms of tournament played. At the end of 2017 the only points used in the rankings will be from those 2017 events, which is what makes the Race points a useful bellwether, at best. Remember though, in mid-June of last year, it was just about unthinkable that Djokovic wouldn’t finish No. 1, and possibly by a record margin. He was passed after the U.S. Open. Thus, no one should lean too heavily on the results of two big tournaments and some other small ones. There’s far more tennis to be played.

All that being said, it’s hard not to start doing the math. Here’s the ATP rankings for 2017 points only.

Federer almost has double the points of Nadal! And he’s a full Grand Slam win ahead of both Murray and Djokovic. And he’s done all of that in just three tournaments. All the other top players have four.

What would it take for Federer to get to No. 1, then? Not much. Just a strong clay-court season, deep runs at two of the three remaining Grand Slams (semifinals and beyond), a healthy season and no player going crazy and winning three Slams in a row on top of a handful of 1000s events. You know, simple.

It’s possible though. British books recently moved the odds of Fed reaching No. 1 again to 3/1, a number based on both the strength of Federer’s start to the year and the inevitable Federer love that always affects his odds. People love to bet on Federer and it’s far more fun to put money on him reaching No. 1 than it is to buy short. (It’s the same reason Tiger Woods is 100/1 to win The Masters.)

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The more important question than if it will happen is if Federer should try and make it happen? I don’t think he will and, if that’s the case, it’s the right call. If Federer wants to stay around as long as possible, as he always says he will, he should be playing the long game, not chasing something that might happen if dozens of things fall into place. The allure to collect points all around the world will be intoxicating but it can’t be the top priority. Staying healthy to play in a dozen more Grand Slams, and actually compete in them, is far more important than a ranking he’s already held for close to six years combined. It’d be a great line for his tennis bio but, ultimately, winning another Grand Slam(s) is the only G.O.A.T. barometer that matters.

That’s not to say it couldn’t happen. Expect Federer to play the same kind of schedule as usual and not go point-hunting in the spring and summer. He’ll play the events he usually plays and take the breaks a 35-year-old should. That means Cincinnati but not Canada, Monte Carlo but not Madrid and Basel but not Shanghai. Then, and only then, if the No. 1 ranking is still in play come October, Federer would have to go for it. It might only be a feather, but No. 1 at age 36 would be quite the addition to the cap.