Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and the fight to finish No. 1

If you didn’t know better, you might be hard-pressed to believe that top-ranked Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are in the throes of a struggle with enormous implications for their respective legacies.

Should Nadal win the Paris Masters (where Djokovic is top seed) for the first time in his career this week, he will lock down year-end No. 1 honors for a fifth time, joining the elite company of Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer — and Djokovic. The top-seeded Djokovic has even more riding on the outcome of the next few weeks. If Nadal stumbles on the hard courts, Djokovic could join Sampras as a six-time, year-end No. 1.

Yet there they were a week ago on Sunday, in far-flung Kazakhstan, with Djokovic acting as a foil to Nadal in an exhibition benefiting Nadal’s foundation. (“I can’t thank him enough,” Nadal said.) Then, after arriving on Sunday in Paris, the men ignored a deep pool of talent and selected each other as practice partners.

“It was actually very unusual because we haven’t practiced for years,” Djokovic said of their practice session. “It was strange because when I see him across the net, that means I’m playing him probably semifinals or finals of a big event. This time it was a practice session. But nevertheless, the intensity was like a match.”

The question arises, were either or both men practicing the fine art of keeping your friends close but your enemies closer?

That’s possible, although these two are as familiar with each other as the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. Their rivalry, 54 matches thus far with Djokovic leading 28-26, is already the greatest in tennis history. More likely, both men are trying to downplay the pressure inherent in the situation. The coming weeks might have a significant impact on their legacies. Neither man is as cavalier as he has been in the past about the importance of rankings, especially the prestigious year-end No. 1 honors.

“With my age and with my goals, I cannot lose energy or time to [chase] the No. 1 ranking,” Nadal said after winning the US Open. “I need to think about my career in a different way.”

Djokovic was in a comparable situation late in 2016, with Andy Murray drawing ever closer in his rearview mirror. (Murray eventually locked down the top ranking by beating Djokovic in the final match of the ATP year.)

“I don’t think about [the rankings] as a priority now,” Djokovic said back then. “From my perspective, I don’t think about that. I think about something else that is more important.”

Djokovic was referring to a desire to mine more joy out of his career following a loss of motivation and slump that he experienced shortly after completing his career Grand Slam at the 2016 French Open. Both he and Nadal (along with Federer) have often declared their intent to follow a schedule that put their health and happiness ahead of pursuing rankings. At 33, Nadal is almost a full year older than Djokovic, but he’s also had more serious struggles with injury.

This rankings race is different, though.

Nadal is in the lead at this stage. While Djokovic remains No. 1 in the official 52-week rolling rankings, Nadal leads in the important year-to-date points race. He has a cushion of 1280 points (a Masters Series title is worth 1000), with no points dropping off in the coming weeks (Nadal was out all of last fall). This is why he will also take over the top ranking in the 52-week scheme after next week, no matter what happens in Paris.

The bind for Djokovic is that he has to defend some 680 points from last year’s results in Paris and London (the tour finals). He won’t be able to gain a large number of points the way Nadal might.

“I have to win all of my matches till the end of the season, which I’m aware of,” Djokovic said in Paris. “But it also depends on him, how he does. So these kind of calculations are never really great for the mentality of a player, and they take away vital energy that you need to use for your performance. I prefer not [to] really think about it too much.”

Nadal is in no position to take anything for granted. The 12-time French Open champion, Nadal loves Paris in the springtime, but his ardor cools considerably under the fall skies. His best result at the Paris Masters has been a final-round loss over a decade ago. He was asked on Monday if the disparity between his success at the French Open and his struggles at the indoor Paris Masters were a matter of bad luck. He replied:

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