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ANALYSIS: Rafael Nadal Paris Masters decision not about world number one - but it is about Novak Djokovic

Rafael Nadal is not frightened of Novak Djokovic - or anyone else - but he certainly respects him, and his Paris Masters decision shows it.
Rafael Nadal backhand practice

Rafael Nadal has confirmed he will extend his season and play in the Paris Masters. Novak Djokovic is unquestionably the motivation behind it, but maybe not for the reason you think.

The ATP Points system can be a little tough to get your head around sometimes with so many tournaments going on in so many parts of the world simultaneously.

This year, that is even more the case given the temporary changes designed to get players through the coronavirus crisis without punishing them for opting to put their safety first.

Essentially, players get awarded points for how far they get in a tournament, with the amounts rising as the prominence of the tournament does. They then defend those points the following season or, if possible, improve upon them.

Ultimately, its very simple and self-explanatory. The winner of an ATP250 event gets 250 ranking points, the winner of an ATP500 event gets 500 ranking points, and the winner of a Masters 1000 event gets 1000 ranking points. Grand Slam winners, meanwhile, receive 2000.

However, with no Grand Slams left this season, that makes the Paris Masters in November a valuable tournament for players as it awards the biggest chunks of points.

Where we stand

Novak Djokovic is, unsurprisingly, a long away out in front. His lead over Rafael Nadal in second is almost 2000.

There is a third outstanding player right now, though, and its not Roger Federer.

Dominic Thiem has emerged as a true rival to the established big three, and he is just 725 points short of Nadal.

Federer is fourth, but that is based pretty much entirely on last season’s points. Had the temporary points safeguards not been in place, he would have dropped considerably due to his knee injury.

The rest are some way short of Thiem, although Daniil Medvedev is another who is relying heavily on last year’s points after a very poor season by his standards.

1 Novak Djokovic - 11,740
2 Rafael Nadal - 9,850
3 Dominic Thiem - 9,125
4 Roger Federer - 6,630
5 Stefanos Tsitsipas - 5,925
6 Daniil Medvedev - 5,890
7 Alexander Zverev - 4,855
8 Andrey Rublev - 3,429
9 Diego Schwartzman - 3,180
10 Matteo Berrettini - 3,075
11 Gael Monfils - 2,860
12 Denis Shapovalov - 2,830
13 Roberto Bautista Agut - 2,710
14 David Goffin - 2,555

So why is Novak Djokovic skipping the Paris Masters?

By the time Paris rolls around, Novak Djokovic is likely to have added to his points total. He has decided to play Vienna – an ATP500 tournament that he has not played since 2007.

The reason for that is clear. Since he has no points to defend there, whatever he can win will be additional, not defended points.

In practical terms, it means this: Since the 1000 points Djokovic won in Paris last year are protected by the temporary safeguards, he cannot add to his total there. There are 1000 points available, and he already has them. However, since he did not play Vienna last season, he can earn additional points there this year.

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Djokovic points total if he enters and wins Paris Masters: 11,740
Djokovic points total if he enters and loses in Vienna first round: 11,760
Djokovic points if he enters and wins Vienna: 12,240

So, clearly, Djokovic has absolutely nothing to gain from playing the Paris Masters this year, but he cannot help but gain by simply entering Vienna.

That, in practical terms, will make it almost impossible for Nadal to catch him and deny him a record-equalling sixth year-end world number one.

So why is the Paris Masters so important to Nadal?

There is some speculation that Nadal is trying to deny Djokovic that year-end world number one spot. The Spaniard won it himself last year and maybe he wants to retain it?

Nadal, though, is nothing if not a pragmatist, and he will be well aware that he is not in a position to influence who finishes the year top of the rankings. It is, for all intents and purposes, sewn up already.

The man he is worrying about is Dominic Thiem – but the reason he is worried about him is Djokovic.

Last year, Thiem was immensely disappointing at the Paris Masters. He lost in the third round to Grigor Dimtrov, winning just 90 points.

That’s significant, because it creates a lot of room for dramatic improvement. If he wins it, for example, he would be able to leapfrog Nadal in one go in the rankings unless it was Nadal who he beat in the final – in which case he’d be a tiny margin behind.

That is because, as a defeated semi-finalist last season (he withdrew injured before his match with Denis Shapavalov), Nadal has much less room to add points. He will need to reach the final at least to add to his total. If he does that, he’s a big favourite win enough points to hold off Thiem. If he doesn’t enter at all, he is passively passing the initiative to the Austrian, and Nadal doesn’t do passive.

The ATP Finals would still be to come, but it’s an unpredictable tournament with a unique format and ranking points system, so it can become something of a lottery, which is something Nadal understandably wants to avoid.

But why would Nadal be so bothered about being world number two?

That’s simple: The Australian Open.

It is inevitable that Novak Djokovic will head to Melbourne as the top seed, and that means there is only one way to avoid meeting him before the final – be the second seed. Or, to put it another way, be the world number two.

Rafael Nadal doesn’t fear anyone on a tennis court, but of course he respects Novak Djokovic. No man has won more singles titles at the Australian Open than Djokovic. If you can avoid him, you’re going to try.

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