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Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Novak Djokovic first among the equals


The ATP year in tennis ended Monday when Novak Djokovic took out Roger Federer in straight sets in the final of the ATP World Tour Finals.

The result provided a welcome sense of clarity to the just-completed year because a win at the year-end championships by Federer or Andy Murray would have left many pundits and fans unsatisfied. There would be this nagging sense that although Djokovic finished No. 1 in the rankings, he didn't really have the best year and wasn't the one who had the greatest impact on the game -- that latter being the criterion for choosing that unofficial but useful title: "player of the year."

In other words, we have Djokovic to thank for stepping up to impose some kind of order on a chaotic and tumultuous year for the ATP. This, of course, is the downside of having this much-lauded and prized big four at the apex of the ATP pyramid.

Sure, everyone loves to see rivalries and competitive depth at the top of the game. Outright domination by one man is never as appealing as a game that has a strong rivalry. (Just ask Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi about that.) But true parity at the top among four men might not prove to be such a great thing, either. People still like order. People still like the idea that there's a champ, and that he or she is there to be beaten.

This simultaneous craving for order and rivalry is why Federer never looked better than after Rafael Nadal came along to become a true rival on all surfaces. Those two kept their slim edge on Djokovic and Murray until 2011, when the present-day No. 1 became a clear-and-present danger to the two familiar icons. Suddenly, people started throwing around the word "trivalry," and of course that pesky Scot Murray was also at the fringe of that conversation.

Murray finally hit his stride as a mature champion this year with those two enormous wins (at the Olympic Games and the U.S. Open). He truly did make it a big four, but you have to wonder whether having a "quadalry" (or whatever you want to call it) is really a great thing for tennis. For if having a big four is so great, wouldn't having a big five be even better? Or how about a big seven? And so on.

The obvious answer is no. If there are four or six or seven equally great players around, can any of them really be that great? Isn't the ability to dominate a necessary feature of greatness?

The end of this year nicely illustrated the nature of this challenge for the ATP. I don't care what the rankings said: If Federer or Murray had won the WTF, it surely would have meant there's no clear No. 1 in men's tennis -- just a mathematically determined one. And we would embark on 2013 less curious about how the big four would fare than about whether anyone can jump into the driver's seat in the men's game; they really are different questions.

It's always good to have someone in clear command. It's a little like that famous line in George Orwell's novel, "Animal Farm": All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. In tennis, we need unequal animals. We don't need a big four as much as a big four in which one man is a little bigger, a little more equal, than the others.

As that big-four concept matured the past few years, that "more equal" man has been Federer (first), then Nadal and finally Djokovic.

This year, we were almost denied a man who stands a few inches above his formidable peers, and would have been poorer for it. That was the best thing (for the game in general) about Djokovic's triumph in London. He stepped out on the last day of the tennis year to assert the truth of that oxymoronic saying, "First among equals."

Thanks to that, we have a strong sense of what next year is going to about. You know it and I know it. It's not going to be about which member of the big four is going to win which event; it's going to be about whether anyone can overthrow Djokovic.

It has been thus in tennis forever, and thus it ought to be.