Is Rafael Nadal’s return to No. 1 more important than the cautious rhetoric that seems to come up as often as another one of his break point opportunities? “I don't know what I need to do to become No. 1, but the only way I can do it is playing my best,” Nadal said, according to atpworldtour.com before the China Open was underway.
Really? Nadal is not calculating?
Novak Djokovic shrugged off the No. 1 ranking earlier this week following a tough win over Fernando Verdasco. “Rankings will change. They change all the time. Over the years it has been the case. But you can't think too much about it,” he told atpworldtour.com.
Was this the same Djokovic who vowed only a few days earlier that “As long as there is a chance, I will fight for that top spot.”?
Sifting through the Nadal and Djokovic comments needs an understanding of reverse psychology, recognition of literary hyperbole and insight into sports clichés.
Yes, they will continue to throw beautiful roses at each other. They will continue to insist they must take it one match at a time. There will also be times they feign indifference or ignorance about the battle for No. 1.
Truth Beneath the Indifference
Make no mistake about it: the top ranking matters a great deal. It’s a proud thing to be the best in the world at anything, especially in a sport that ranks all of its contestants. It’s more than just pride and professionalism to be the best. It’s competitive hubris that the greats crave. It’s wearing a tee shirt that says, "I am the best in the world and you know it."
Patrick Rafter had one career week at No. 1, but don’t think for a moment he will not smile at this the rest of his life. Carlos Moya spent two weeks at the top. Marcelo Rios was there for six weeks despite never winning a Grand Slam in his career. Ditto the six weeks for Thomas Muster and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Juan Carlos Ferrero had eight weeks with the crown, and Marat Safin was top dog for nine weeks.
It’s a rare achievement, especially in this decade where the Big Three of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have been so dominant. What would Andy Murray give to hold the No. 1 ranking, even if it lasted as long as a cup of coffee?
The legendary Pete Sampras spent several pages in his autobiography (A Champion's Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis, with Pete Bodo) detailing the importance of fighting back Rios for the 1998 year-end No. 1 ranking. He fought through fatigue and nagging injuries to claim his sixth straight year with this title. It mattered a great deal.
And how did it feel for Federer to fall one week short of Sampras’ 286 career weeks at the top spot when Nadal took back his No. 1 ranking in July, 2010? Clearly it was a motivating factor for him in his 2012 renaissance and eventual climb to 302 total weeks at the top. It will be the standard for many years and perhaps the decades to come.
More Heat to the Rivalry
The recently deposed Djokovic had just cracked the century mark and stood at 101 career weeks at No.1, one week short of Nadal’s 102 career weeks in the top spot. Coincidence or symmetry, it’s emblematic of tennis’ best rivalry. There’s always something more to play for.
Don’t expect Djokovic to roll over for Nadal in the China Open final. A victory for Djokovic means he only allows Nadal to pull ahead by 40 points (11,160-11,120). A victory for Nadal means the Spaniard would lead by 440 points (11,360-10,920).
It could be the difference in Djokovic wresting back the title at Shanghai or Paris—where Nadal is not slated to play. (Nadal is scheduled to play at Basel, Switzerland one week earlier than Paris.)
At any rate, Nadal and Djokovic never lack motivation when they play each other for titles, even if they have occasionally insisted the No. 1 ranking is merely an afterthought.
Upon clinching his return to No.1, Nadal admitted, "If I am able to be No. 1 at the end of the season, then, that's an important achievement because I will be the best of the year...That's something that really motivates me."
Djokovic told msn.com how challenging it is to defend the top spot. “I know how hard it is because I've been fighting for that place for the last couple of years and I know what a player needs to do in order to end up (the) year at number one.”
The Serbian is also determined not to let Nadal run away with tennis’ yellow jacket. “It's still not lost for me. He's going to be number one for Monday, but as I said, the season is still not over.”
When It's Time to Rest
In the long run, the total grind of wearing a target and battling through nagging injuries might ultimately determine the career totals at No. 1 for both players. For now, Nadal is on top, but it could be as fragile as his knees. Djokovic is clearly motivated to regain the kind of glory that shone on his epic 2011 season.
Tennis careers and performances can turn on a dime. There’s only so much peak time left for both players in the race to be the best as they grab as many Grand Slam trophies and titles as they can.
“Celebrations are for the end of the season, not before," Nadal said to atpworld.com. “[It] is not my time for celebrations, it's time [to] keep being focused. The season is not over, my work is not over.”
So Nadal and Djokovic will fight on. They can rest when they retire.