The Spaniard and his biggest rival, Roger Federer, admit tennis has moved on from the days of the pair's dominance.
Rafael Nadal admits the only constant in world of tennis is change
For half a decade, men's tennis belonged to Roger and Rafa. Or Rafa and Roger. It was a bipolar world order, and they regularly met in the finals of major events to sort out the technicalities of who would be No 1 at any given moment.
Then came Novak Djokovic and the magical 2011 season that vaulted the Serb to No 1, and the cosy company of two had become the crowd of three. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, each knocked down a peg, are learning to cope.
"I can't speak for Roger, but I can accept the situation and congratulate Novak," Nadal said yesterday at the International Tennis Complex. "But Roger is not going to be there forever. I won't be there forever. Novak won't be there forever. Tennis changes; the sport changes.
"It's good to have players in the top for a long time, because that's good for the fans. But at the same time it's good to have new people coming in. Not that Novak is anything new; he was No 3 for several years, and he deserved to be there."
Federer said he has had a good rivalry with Djokovic, but agreed that it will never be seen in the same light as his epic duels with Nadal, which included meetings in both the French and Wimbledon finals for three consecutive years through 2008.
"Novak and I have had many exciting matches, but because he usually was 3 or 4 and I was 1 or 2, we often played in the semi-finals," he said. "The rivalry never got to the point that it was with Rafa, and it never will because we were 1-2 for so long. But Novak is a great player, and I respect what he has done."
Like Nadal, he was keen to point out that Djokovic did not materialise from thin air. "Rafa was my main rival, but Novak and [Andy] Murray announced themselves several years ago. It wasn't like he wasn't one of the best.
"He was able to put together a quite extraordinary season. I expect from the three of them, Novak, Rafa and Murray, another extraordinary season. We all played every well in 2011."
Despite Djokovic's 10 championships in 2011, including three slams, and his 41-match winning streak to open the season, Nadal and Federer each are convinced they had very nice seasons - circumscribed only by one man playing out of his mind.
Nadal won three tournaments, including the French Open, and reached seven additional finals, losing six of them to Djokovic. "I was happy. I wasn't perfect, but I was playing really good, not perfect," Nadal said. "Against Djokovic last year I had to be perfect and I wasn't."
Federer won four championships, handed Djokovic his first defeat, at the French, and won the final three tournaments of the season, including the Paris Masters and the ATP World Tour Finals.
Aside from a rocky beginning, "I was very solid all the way through," Federer said. "I haven't lost to someone outside the top 20 for a long time. What was missing was that last breakthrough.
"For me, it was about keeping my cool, keeping sane, not going crazy over multiple tough losses. My reaction since losing to Novak in the US open is what I like.
"I didn't go into a hole and say, 'Oh, my God, I'm terrible. What is happening to me?' Face the fact that you're playing guys who are going well. I haven't lost a match since, and I've been very pleased since."
Nadal and Federer, and the tennis world, are waiting to see if Djokovic can produce another season like he did in 2011.
"Novak will be the favourite to finish at No 1," Federer said. "The question will be whether he can have the same kind of year, which no one expected form him."
Both Nadal and Federer said they would like to return to No 1 this season. If Djokovic stumbles, and they pass him, we might yet see a few more Roger-Rafa finals.