Rafael Nadal: I lost today but I lost against one of the greatest.
Novak Djokovic: You are the greatest ever for me.
That was the core part of the exchange between World No. 1 Nadal and No. 2 Djokovic on the podium yesterday after the Serb rendered the Spaniard lifeless by the beginning of the third set of the Indian Wells Masters final. It got to the point that some Rafaphiles wondered if their favorite player uncharacteristically decided to call it quits.
Verify the exchange here: Djokovic was not joking, and the publicly expressed opinion of the World No. 2 cannot be taken as merely personal either.
In the post-match interviews, both Nadal and Djokovic were asked about the exchange.
Nadal, who is well aware that he is barely past the halfway mark toward Federer's 16 Grand Slams with nine, laughed at the baseless praise and said, "It's not true."
But the Serb went on to defend his claim.
"I think he's the best ever because, even though he's 24 years old, he has done so much already," Djokovic said. "Many years in front of him too, I think even to overtake [Federer] in the Grand Slam trophies."
This was the first time Djokovic has called Nadal the greatest player ever, though he praised Nadal once before in similar terms, right before the US Open final 2010:
"I think already he's one of the best ever because he has won an Olympic gold medal, he has won Davis Cup, he has won every major except this one and so many tournaments," Djokovic said at the time. "He has the records of 1,000 events as well, and he's still only 24 years old. So it's just incredible what he has done so far in his career."
It now seems that Djokovic obliged Nadal to call the Serb one of the greatest. To me, this was tentatively rehearsed in some light-hearted private conversation before it came out recklessly in public.
How does this compare with Pete Sampras' acceptance of Roger Federer as the greatest of all time (GOAT) when the Swiss surpassed the American in Grand Slam count?
I am not even sure if we should bother with a comparison at all. If so, what should we make out of the Nadal-Djokovic exchange of greatness? Or, should we just dismiss it as an immature act of hero-worshiping or mere camaraderie between No. 1 and No. 2.
Be that as it may, Nadal is right. Djokovic has been one of the best players since 2007, though the mark of "one of the greatest" is a blatant exaggeration at the moment.
Undoubtedly, with three titles (3,500 ranking points) including a Grand Slam, a Masters and 18-0 win streak in the first three months of the year, the Serb is the hottest player of the first quarter of 2011 season and may well be on his way to fulfilling his dream.
To find a better record, one will have to travel back to 1986 when Ivan Lendl started the year with 26-0 streak (On a side note, Lendl's run did not include a Grand Slam because the French Open was the first Grand Slam of the year at the time and was played in May-June, and the Masters series was not born until 1990).
"Djokovic is in the best position [to finish the year No. 1]," said Nadal.
The reason in Nadal's mind, Nadal said, was that “Nole starts with a big advantage right now, 3,000—almost 4,000—points, so that's a lot. That's a lot for serious player like him. That's a lot for a complete player like him, because he can play really good on all the surfaces. He has a big advantage."
The Serb seems like he is already gearing up for the French Open.
“I am aware that, in order to win trophies on that surface, big ones, I will need to be physically very, very fit," Djokovic said. "Because as the slowest surface, it requires a lot of physical strength and endurance and I have been working hard on it for a while. I will definitely pay attention to it more."
The scariest part, in the last three months, the Serb beat Top 7 players seven times (won 17 sets against them by giving away meager 3 sets).
My hunch is Djokovic's run will face interruptions at different points of the season. The first of which could come as early as next week at the Miami Masters, but it will resume later as a second and/or third wave, rather than be totally derailed for the rest of the season.
If he is able to add one more major title this year, which is not impossible, Djokovic will have traveled one-fourth of the journey to being what Nadal called "one of the Greatest" of the Open era. And that is a future possibility, not a present fact.
The muscle, finesse, will to not wilt, insatiable hunger, coupled with new found success and mustang of confidence to ride are coming together in an opportune time to create an aura of invincibility and the Serb's dream appears ripe to glide into reality.