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:
“If it’s not good luck that I won 12 times in Roland Garros, it’s not bad luck that I never won here. I missed this tournament a lot of times in my career. And other times I didn’t play well, and other times opponents have been better than me.”
The fall fails in Paris are hardly surprising. By this time of year, Nadal is usually wildly successful, heavy-legged, injured or incapable of marshaling the energy — or interest — in solving the indoor hard-court puzzle. He hasn’t won a title on indoor hard courts since 2005, and has claimed a grand total of just two in his 84 tournament wins. He hasn’t done much better at the year-ending tour finals.
Nadal managed to grind his way to the finals at the year-end championships twice, losing on both occasions to his career rivals — Federer in 2010, and Djokovic in 2013.
By contrast, Djokovic is the all-time leader in wins (32) at the Paris Masters. He’s powered his way to the title a record four times. His results at the tour finals have been equally — if not more — impressive due to the quality of the competition in the field comprised of the top eight performers of the year. Djokovic has claimed the title five times, one shy of the record held by Federer, going back 11 years. Three of those wins have been over the record holder. Djokovic also stopped Nadal in the 2013 final. So he’s got good reason to think he’s still in the game.
Skipping tournaments in order to remain sharp and healthy as age takes its toll is understandable, but it also puts that much more pressure on a player to perform when he does step out to compete. The position Djokovic has landed in would not be so challenging had he taken full advantage of playing this fall when Nadal was absent, home taking care of an injured hand and preparing for his recent marriage.
After pulling out of the US Open with a sore shoulder after losing the first two sets of his fourth-round match with Stan Wawrinka, Djokovic entered Tokyo as well as the Shanghai Masters. His success rate in the fall has traditionally been superb, so it was no surprise when he won the ATP 500 event in Tokyo.
Djokovic was poised to gain valuable ground on sidelined Nadal at the Shanghai Masters, where Djokovic was the defending champion, but he was upset in the quarterfinals by No. 7 Stefanos Tsitsipas. As a result, Djokovic actually lost 320 ranking points over the period between the US Open and this week, the points he earned in those two events not enough to equal the 1,000 points dropping off his total after Shanghai.
The draw in Paris hasn’t broken Djokovic’s way, either. He could end up having to beat tough-out Diego Schwartzman, Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev just to reach the final. Nadal’s draw isn’t any easier. He will probably have to navigate his way past a string of the power servers he so fears on faster courts, including defending champ Karen Khachanov, to reach the final.
“It’s fantastic,” Nadal said of his strong chance to finish as the top-ranked player of the year. “I prefer to be No. 1 to No. 2, and No. 2 to No. 3. And of course, finishing the year world No. 1 is something special, and I would love to make that happen.”
Don’t let the recent fraternal interactions of Djokovic and Nadal fool you. Both men are deadly serious about the coming weeks, and understand full well the impact the Paris and year-end events could have on their legacies.
Nadal has put himself in position to complete a career year. But he might have to get past a practice partner named Djokovic to achieve it.