“For me, you are the greatest player ever.” So said Novak Djokovic to Rafael Nadal after defeating him in the final of the BNP Paribas Open. Djokovic's compliment is sharp in a number of ways. On one hand, it can be interpreted as a diss on Roger Federer, a player often touted as the greatest ever, with whom Djokovic has at times had a testy competitive relationship. On the other hand, it can also be seen as Djokovic giving Nadal a taste of his own medicine: how many times has Nadal called Federer the “greatest” after notching another win during his dominance of their rivalry?
Ultimately, it's only a matter of words, though thanks to the media, words have a way of traveling as often and far as the players on tour. And they do have the potential for instigating psychological gamesmanship. After his semifinal loss to Djokovic, Federer was asked about a comment late in 2011 by past champion Martina Navratilova that he will likely never reach the number one spot again, and his response ricocheted from catty (“Maybe she was somewhere else climbing Kilimanjaro,” a reference to a recent failed expedition by Navratilova) to uncharacteristically affectionate (“I love her”). One thing's clear, the top three men's players are doing a bit of role-playing at the moment.
Of the trio, the formerly impersonation-prone Djokovic is the most adept at role-playing, and his current roles suit him fine. In winning the BNP Paribas Open, he usurped Federer as the number two player in the world, and confirmed his status as the best player of 2011, remaining undefeated and triumphing over current number one Nadal in their first encounter this year.
Within the second of my four posts about this tournament, I remarked on Djokovic's improved maturity and sense of solidity, and he's backing up that observation. Technically his game lacks the grand flourishes of Federer and Nadal, but it's more solid overall, especially when -- like now -- his forehand and hard-to-read serve are not just under control but in weapon mode. His speed is at its apex, allowing for excellent footwork. He's long been the most bendable of players, and he's bringing that unmatched torso flexibility to his well-planted groundstrokes with maximum results. Simply put, he is currently the best athlete on tour, with the strongest technique and mental resolve.
Lodged at number one without a tournament win in over five months, Nadal finds himself in the familiar position of entering the upcoming clay and grass court seasons with his ranking on the line. His play at Indian Wells offered signs of promise and worry. No physical issues seem apparent or imminent; in 2009, when he was also at number one during this time of year, he soon ground himself down and paid a steep price for it. As with Federer and Djokovic, his racquet head speed while executing shots is observably a flight above the rest of the of the tour. But his focus and intensity appear different than in earlier years, more muted.
The major worry spot for Nadal at Indian Wells was his serve. Early in the tournament he seemed displeased with it during warmup sessions, and he double-faulted twice in a row to lose a set during his and Marc Lopez's doubles defeat by Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka. He double-faulted on the first point of his semifinal against Juan Martin Del Potro, a pressure-filled encounter because their previous match at the 2008 U.S. Open was perhaps the worst drubbing of Nadal's career.
Eventually, Nadal used his superior variety as well as well-disguised down-the-line forehands to wrest control of the match from Del Potro, who is still regaining form. But in the final against Djokovic, double-faults crept back into Nadal's game and his first-serve percentage was woeful, especially by his standards. While Nadal's serve has never matched his ranking, a high first-serve percentage – usually in the 60s or 70s – has been fundamental to his success. He has to regain control of the shot, but is fortunate the tour is about to swing to clay, the surface where big first serves are least important.
As for Federer, he finds himself partly in the most humble position he's been in for some time, now ranked third in the world, without an active slam title to his name. Of course, having won more major single titles than any other men's player in the open era, he can occupy any ranking from a position of absolute mastery. But his defeats to Djokovic are becoming more frequent. In claiming the second set of their semifinal, he snapped a streak of six successive sets that Djokovic had won against him. Back in 2007 or 2008, Djokovic's wins over Federer were often defensive ones, as defined by Federer's errors as Djokovic's persistence. Today, Djokovic is often dominant during their baseline exchanges. One of Eric Lynch's photos above, of a worried-looking Federer racing to execute a backhand against Djokovic, perfectly illustrates the Swiss champion's current situation.
The greatest tennis player ever may be Roger Federer. It may be Martina Navratilova. It may be Rafael Nadal, one day. But such decisions are subjective. The best tennis player in the world at the moment is Novak Djokovic. He has yet to lose a match in 2011, and unlike in 2008, the other year in which he ruled the early months, he's carrying his form over to Miami, the final hard court stop on the spring tour. We'll soon find out how well clay rhymes with Nole.