Novak Djokovic covered the walkways of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden the same way he covers the court, taking long strides but still agile enough to change directions and swerve around a cleaning cart, in this case, instead of lunging to return a crazily bouncing kick serve.
The No. 1 men's tennis player in the world was headed to the Stadium Plaza on Friday to attend the unveiling of a mural of him, a tribute to his four championships at the BNP Paribas Open. Djokovic — who will begin his drive for a fifth title Sunday against American Bjorn Fratangelo — was in his element, happily obliging as he signed visors and fuzzy yellow tennis balls, and posed for a few selfies after the ceremony.
He had every reason to be upbeat. He loves the atmosphere here, has recovered from the eye infection that forced him to retire during the quarterfinals of a tournament in Dubai last month, and he was inspired after visiting Los Angeles early this week to meet Kobe Bryant and Alexander Ovechkin of hockey's Washington Capitals at a Lakers game.
"Of course I'm a fan of Kobe and Ovechkin. These guys are legends of their sports," Djokovic said with a smile. "Just to be alongside those guys that have done such great things in their sports, and to share some kind of moments and experiences, it's truly remarkable."
Djokovic is no slouch in the legend department himself with 189 weeks atop the rankings, the last 88 in a row. With 11 Grand Slam singles titles he stands behind only Roger Federer's 17, the 14 won by Pete Sampras (retired) and Rafael Nadal, and the 12 won by retired Australian Roy Emerson. And at age 28, Djokovic figures to have many chances to increase his formidable total. Already this year he has taken the lead in career head-to-head matchups with Federer (23-22) and Nadal (24-23), and Nadal was unabashedly in awe after losing to him at the Doha final in January.
"I played against a player who did everything perfectly," Nadal said at the event. "I don't know of anybody who's ever played tennis like that. Since I know the sport I have never seen somebody playing at this level."
That fueled the debate about whether the 6-foot-2 Serb with the amazing court coverage, deadly backhand and uncanny ability to hit deeply but precisely is — or can become — the best player of all time.
It's a discussion Djokovic declined to escalate Friday in his eloquent English, one of four languages he speaks. The others are Italian — in which he spoke to Bryant — Serbian, and German.
Is he the ultimate No. 1?
"No, no. Not yet," he said. "I do believe in myself and my abilities and I'm very proud of what I have achieved so far in my career. But I still think it's too early to talk about being the best ever.
"Obviously it's very speculative, that subject of being the best ever. You can't compare the generations. The tennis that was played 30, 40 years ago is completely different from now, today. We used to play with wooden rackets. Now we have the help of technology that the rackets themselves, the materials, are helping us to control the ball better, to have more spin, more rotation, more speed. Of course, the game became more physical. It used to be more touch, more finesse so it's kind of hard. Every generation has its own best players."
He looms as the best of this generation. Federer, 34, is fading and is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, which prevented him from competing here. Djokovic is 22-9 in career head-to-head matchups with Scotsman Andy Murray, No. 2 in the world and seeded second here, and 21-4 vs. Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, No. 4 in the world and seeded third here.
With that context, Federer's record of 17 Grand Slam titles seems well within Djokovic's reach. But again, Djokovic demurred.
"Of course. I think there is no reason not to believe I can go very far. Whether or not I can break that record of all-time Grand Slam wins, I can't predict or guarantee," he said. "But I always believed in myself and always approached each tournament with a great dose of self confidence but also respect and humbleness toward the other rivals and awareness of not being the only one who wants to win big trophies and be the best.
"With that in mind, that brought me here and so I'm just going to keep on going and try to maintain this kind of lifestyle and approach to the tennis world and hopefully I can get many more opportunities to win Grand Slam trophies and eventually fight for that all-time record."
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