Murray's No. 1 spot isn't safe with Djokovic, Federer and Nadal around


They don't exactly come out and say they've missed being together again in the same draw, tormenting each other for the same titles and rankings and footholds in history. But that feeling comes through when you listen to what Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer say about starting the new year chasing Andy Murray, for a change, now that Murray is the last of the Big Four to have risen to No. 1 in the world.

The Big Four are all expected to be back together again finally for the first time in a year at the Australian Open (Jan.16-29). "It's up to us to reinvent ourselves, come up with a plan," Federer said at a news conference in Perth when discussing the new pecking order after he and Nadal fell off the tour with injuries.

If that doesn't happen for them or for Djokovic, it won't be for a lack of trying.

After a Jekyll-and-Hyde year, Djokovic retained longtime trainer Marian Vadja but parted ways with coach Boris Becker in November after a late-season slump -- this even though Becker presided over six of Djokovic's 12 career major titles in their three years together, including his first French Open win.

Djokovic hasn't replaced Becker just yet -- the early rumor being that he was considering sometime Davis Cup teammate Nenad Zimonjic. But he has taken some ribbing for hiring a mental coach named Pepe Imaz, who runs a tennis center in Marbella, Spain, and worked with Djokovic's younger brother Marko. Imaz talks in New Age terms about giving "absolute priority to the person's well-being, feelings and emotions" as well as helping players "regain that feeling of love both for tennis but more importantly for yourself." He uses meditation and believes in the power of lengthy hugs.

Given how Djokovic sobbed inconsolably after his loss at the Rio Olympics, and twice ripped the front of his shirts apart in frustration during matches later in the year, perhaps Imaz is just the person he needs. Becker has gone from tweaking Djokovic after their split for some slippage in Djokovic's work ethic to saying now that he fully expects Djokovic to win more Slams and return to No. 1.

Djokovic, now 29, insists that he feels rejuvenated.

"New year, new goals, new energy," he said in a recent Facebook post that included a photo of himself, his wife and his overhauled team.

Unlike with Djokovic, not many folks outside Nadal's own camp are predicting a return to the top spot for Nadal.

The Spanish star has admitted he wasn't enjoying tennis much when wrist injuries sidelined him twice in 2016, starting with a withdrawal at his beloved French Open, where he has won nine times. He's still only 30, but with so many miles on his achy knees, and now a surgically repaired wrist to deal with atop that, Nadal is hoping he'll benefit from his decision to end his season in October. Rest has always been something Nadal has been loath to try. Yet he did it.

Another sign of just how times are changing -- and how seriously Nadal is seeking to reinvent himself -- was Nadal's decision in December to change up from his fierce loyalty to his longtime coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, and add countryman Carlos Moya to his coaching team after 40-year-old Moya split with Milos Raonic. Uncle Toni told reporters it was actually his idea to reach out to Moya when their fellow Majorcan came free because "the moment was right."

Moya didn't tiptoe in. His early diagnosis of his friend Nadal's inability to add to his 14 major titles since 2014 was frank: "In a tennis player's life," Moya told a Spanish TV interviewer, "there are matches that serve as a turning point, a match lost in the tiebreak of the last set, a match that you win and gives you a title. Rafa has lost some of them, and that confidence is necessary.

"I think Rafa can win majors again and be No. 1. And it's not that I think so, I'm sure. He is Rafa Nadal."

Federer is well aware of the resonance his name has, too. But after four years of being stalled at a men's record of 17 Grand Slam titles, Federer could only laugh during a recent and far-reaching online Q&A with fans when someone asked him why he was smiling all the time?

"Should I be like this instead?" Federer asked, scowling at the live video camera, then laughing again.

Federer has always had a remarkable ability to remain unsinkable and impressively optimistic even in challenging times such as the past year.

Heading into the Hopman Cup in early January, he hadn't played a match since July 8 at Wimbledon. He hasn't won a Slam title since 2012. Like Nadal, his 2016 season featured months lost to injuries. First, he hurt his meniscus in the Australian Open, which resulted in the first surgery of his career. He tried coming back in late spring, but back trouble forced him to miss the French Open. He went into Wimbledon a few weeks later having played only lightly, yet still streaked to the semifinals there, leaping out to a 2-1 set lead over Raonic before losing in a five-set epic.

The deep run took its toll on Federer's body. He missed the Rio Olympics and the U.S. Open, again citing knee soreness. But now, with five months of recuperation behind him, he says he's "thrilled" to be pain free and feels physically and mentally "restored."

He also still believes he can win another major. Maybe more.

"I've been awfully close the past few years, but that doesn't count because it's not winning," Federer said in a conference call with reporters before departing for Australia. "Novak did have an incredible run these last few years, and it was incredibly hard to break through him. For anybody."

That Murray was the one who pulled off the feat astonished even Murray.

Remember, Djokovic held all four major titles simultaneously when he finally won the French Open for the first time. It looked to be his year. But starting with Wimbledon, which Murray won, Murray kept inexorably gaining on him. He defended his Olympic gold medal, then ended 2016 with a 26-match winning streak and overtook Djokovic for the No. 1 ranking by winning the Paris Masters, then beating him in the year-end ATP Finals championship match.

Now, one of the many storylines heading into the Australian Open is whether Murray can cross yet another item off his bucket list and finally take the title after five losses in the championship match.

At 29, Murray is the oldest man to earn the top ranking for the first time since John Newcombe did it at age 30 in 1974. And Murray admits he likes the altitude up there. He'd like to hang on to the honor for a while.

"I know staying at the top is a really difficult thing to do," Murray has said.

"Different animal," Federer agrees.

As the eldest of the Big Four, 35-year-old Federer is especially determined to enjoy these moments while he can. He admits, "I miss the roars, I miss the fans."

He takes great pains to stress that it's not just the Big Four players who are capable of winning majors now. He notes that Raonic and 2009 U.S. Open winner Juan Martin del Potro could lead the mix of younger, wannabe major-title winners chasing the Big Four -- praising the comeback year Del Potro just had, in particular, as, "epic."

Federer has always been a scoreboard watcher even when he wasn't able to play matches himself. Now that the world rankings have been shuffled among the Big Four in the most unexpected way yet -- Murray, followed by Djokovic at No. 2, Nadal at No. 9 and Federer at No. 16, his lowest ranking since 2001 -- Federer says he still believes anything is achievable for him.

He seems as committed as ever, too. In late December, Federer allowed fans to watch one of his workouts at his Dubai training base on a video app. After one drill, he did something that evoked that old dog-eared adage that greatness is often revealed by what you do in private or what you do unbidden: Federer stopped hitting and ordered himself to hit the ground and do 10 pushups for "messing up" a drill with his coach. Then he smiled through every bit of the "punishment."

He's that happy just to be back.

Retirement isn't far off, Federer amiably conceded later, "But not yet. Not yet."