Can Federer Reclaim No. 1 Ranking?

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Roger Federer and Pete Sampras are often linked, and for good reason.

Sampras was Federer's idol as a boy. Both won their first Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon just before their 22nd birthdays. The two are beloved by traditionalists who adore their classic styles. The duo are routinely mentioned among the greatest players who ever lived.

Sampras was the all-time Slam title leader with 14 after he won his final major title at the 2002 U.S., his last event before retiring and just a year before Federer won the first of his 16 Slams at Wimbledon in 2003. Rarely has any sport experienced such an uninterrupted flow of brilliance by successive champions.

Yet there is still one record Sampras owns that Federer would like to break - the most weeks holding the No. 1 ranking. Sampras totaled 286 weeks atop the tennis world. Federer is second, agonizingly close at 285.

Since Federer's recurring absence from his usual spot in the finals of Slams - he has reached the championship match in only one of the last eight Slams - many have eschewed the notion that Federer could again lay claim to being the world's best. Currently that honor is reserved for Novak Djokovic.

But with Federer's superb run the last six months - including his victory last weekend at the BNP Paribas Open in the California desert, where he beat archrival Rafael Nadal on an outdoor hard court for the first time since 2005 - he is closing in on Nadal's perch at No. 2. So is No. 1 a realistic goal? Will Federer be able to attain the top position as he approaches his 31st birthday?

To be sure, Federer would gladly trade the top spot for another Slam title or two. A player's legacy is now based almost solely on how many Slam titles one collects. In decades past, the rankings, in addition to Davis Cup and other tournaments, carried far more weight than they do now.

However, Federer is keenly aware of his and the sport's history. And to ascend again to such lofty heights would be a truly satisfying reply to the increasing noise from those who think his best is fading fast.

The way the rankings are calculated gives Federer a legitimate shot at reaching No. 1. Since he has far fewer points to "defend" than Nadal or Djokovic in the coming months, he can conceivably be within striking distance of the top spot by the time his beloved Wimbledon rolls around. Djokovic will likely lose a significant number of points since he's defending four titles through May. And if Nadal were to turn the tide and defeat Djokovic in a final or two this spring, he will have a good shot at the top ranking as well.

For Federer to set up home in that No. 1 slot, he'll likely have to win a Slam in 2012. And this will be no easy task. While he has appeared eerily similar to his 2007 self in the Masters Series events and other tournaments, this doesn't necessarily translate to success at the Slams. There are two obvious reasons for this: Djokovic and Nadal. To take down one or both in a Slam is a huge task.

The Australian Open in January is instructive. Federer came into the event playing incredible tennis, having competed brilliantly since his crushing U.S. Open defeat in September. But when he came up against Nadal in the semifinals, it was the same tired narrative for Federer - a close but never-in-doubt match against his kryptonite.

But doesn't Federer's victory over Nadal last week help his chances against the Spaniard in the months ahead? Yes and no. A win is a win, and it can't be discounted. It surely did wonders for his confidence as even the great Federer admitted to some self-doubt when taking on Nadal.

Yet Federer hasn't beaten Nadal in a best-of-five Slam encounter since the 2007 Wimbledon. And even his relatively strong victory over Nadal on Saturday was a bit shaky toward the end as Nadal finally found his game, though too late. If it had been a best-of-five contest, the outcome might very well have been different.

It still would likely take a favorable draw - read: without Nadal - to give Federer a chance at winning a Slam. Ironically enough, Federer is far less fearful of Djokovic. Federer beat him in last year's French Open semis and by any measure should have won their epic semifinal encounter at the U.S. Open.

All of this intrigue will heighten the anticipation ahead of the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla., which starts this week. Federer is in Djokovic's half of the draw this time. If he were to somehow beat Djokovic and then defeat Nadal in the same event, his return to dominance may not be such a far-fetched thought.

That's getting ahead of things a bit, but the point is that, suddenly and surprisingly, the top three are bunched closer together than anyone would have expected.

And of this there is little doubt: Nadal and Djokovic hear Federer's footsteps. That just adds a little extra pressure as this already extraordinary tennis year continues to fascinate.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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