Federer may be running out of options as Djokovic is looking ominous and bigger than the number three spot in the world rankings.
Three is the magic number for Djokovic
If the pernickety computer that ranks tennis players possessed any creativity rather than just sitting around in the office on its backside spewing cold numerals, it would come up with something fresh for Novak Djokovic.
He could wake tomorrow morning with some original ranking like 2.1. He could remain No 3 but with some sort of admiring emoticon beside. Or maybe the machine could take his customary No 3 and inflate it so that it looks bigger than the usual No 3.
That would fit, for we all have seen enough No 3s to know this is not a real No 3.
The cocksure way he walks into a room or a court or a party, the way he fills a room or a court or a party, the way he staged a wise man's mastery of Roger Federer last night at the Aviation Club to win the Dubai Tennis Championships for the third straight year, the way he talks rationally …
"I know that I have qualities to do even more," he said.
So does everybody else (know).
No 3s through time have been a hotchpotch. There have been meek-seeming, nearly anonymous sorts who could walk down public streets untroubled. There have been players who peaked at No 3 such that the computer seemed mired in brief benevolence, and there have been those clearly headed for No 1.
There have been players taking a little breather on the way down from No 1, or on the way back up to No 1.
Nobody ever has played No 3 quite like Djokovic, who has had three separate turns at No 2 but who, in the age of the ruthless majesty of Federer and Rafael Nadal, has spent so much time at No 3 that it seems he has built a mansion and a yard and a long flow of picket fences and a driveway and thrown in maybe even some horses.
He has made No 3 seem palatial, a marvel in itself.
He first reached No 3 way, way back on July 9, 2007, just after heady berths in both the French and Wimbledon semi-finals.
He remained there for four ATP weeks, dropped a slot for one and then came back for 81.
As of Monday he will have held down No 3 in 125 of the last 170 rankings, and for 18 consecutive weeks this stay.
His highbrow consistency a wonder given the sharks just beneath, he has tweaked this or sagged at that but remained unusually aloft.
Nowadays it's the serve, he says, noting that the shoring up of deficiencies in that shot has dealt him quick points that have saved him some energy.
He proclaims himself a "different player" for that reason, while Federer says he found the serve plenty good all along, while Djokovic's first five service games last night did seem to qualify as a revelation. In those five games, Federer amassed five points total, the score 6-3 and 1-0 by the time Djokovic finished that steamroll.
From there, after a hiccup, the world's so-called No 3 player proceeded with a systematic smothering of a Best Player Ever still more than capable.
Ten rallies in the match stretched to 10 shots or more, and Djokovic won nine of those points. Options diminished and then vanished. Shots sprayed.
You might say the shots sprayed because Federer did not look like Federer, or you might say they sprayed because Djokovic proved too airtight to let Federer look like Federer. "I felt like I had to do a bit more than normal," said Federer, who knows that is no way to go about playing tennis against a titan.
"I had to put him out of the comfort zone," Djokovic said and then added, matter-of-factly, tellingly, "That's what I did."
The sight of Roger Federer out of options remains UFO-like in frequency, unless you might say that UFO's turn up more.
It almost never turns up involving the same opponent across two matches and five swept sets, as with the recent Australian Open and Dubai, but it takes somebody even rarer to look so perfunctory in the process.
So while these things do meander at the top through calendar years, and while Federer absolutely might grab the practice he covets and bob back upward opposite Djokovic, and while Federer clearly deserves the No 2 spot if you look back across the 12 months, and while it's always annoying when the computer is right, what has not meandered for a long, long time is Djokovic's eliteness, set to complete its fourth full year.
When you picture the numeral 3 that cohabitates with his name, you cannot picture everyday 3s like you'd see on road signs or in basketball arenas.
To suit this two-time grand slam champion and five-time finalist and inveterately extraordinary player, something about his "3" needs to be thicker, darker, gaudier, somehow more emphatic.