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PARIS — There was no trophy, and no title, on offer for Novak Djokovic at Court Philippe Chatrier.
Perhaps there should have been, considering what he accomplished.
Thoroughly outplaying the best there’s ever been on red clay, Djokovic ended Rafael Nadal’s 39-match French Open winning streak Wednesday by beating the nine-time champion in a surprisingly lopsided quarterfinal 7-5, 6-3, 6-1.
It’s only Nadal’s second defeat in 72 career matches at Roland Garros — and second in 95 best-of-five-set matches anywhere on the surface. The other came in the fourth round in Paris in 2009 against Robin Soderling.
Before that, Nadal won four championships in a row. And since? Nadal collected a record five consecutive French Open titles.
“I lost in 2009, and (it) was not the end,” Nadal said. “I lost in 2015, and (it) is not the end.”
The No. 1-ranked Djokovic lost all six previous matches they’d played in Paris, including the 2012 and 2014 finals.
But Djokovic’s defence allowed Nadal only three winners off his heavy topspin lefty forehand, perhaps the most feared shot in all of tennis. With his coach, Boris Becker, jumping out of his seat to applaud, Djokovic conjured up 45 winners to only 16 for Nadal, whose 29th birthday sure was a downer.
“He was better than me,” Nadal said. “That’s it.”
By the end, Djokovic not only had broken down Nadal’s game but also his usually unbending will. Appropriately for a match that did not live up to the hype, it closed with a whimper on a double-fault by Nadal.
“I have much respect for Rafa. He is obviously not playing at the level we expect from him this season,” Djokovic said.
This was only a quarterfinal because Nadal’s ranking slipped so far he was seeded sixth, all of his unprecedented French Open success notwithstanding.
The 14-time major champion missed time last season with a right wrist injury, then had appendix surgery. He has spoken openly about a crisis in confidence from poor-for-him results in 2015: Wednesday’s loss was his sixth on clay, his most in a year since 2003. When the rankings come out Monday, he’ll be no better than 10th, his worst spot since 2005.
Djokovic, who won his eighth Slam title at January’s Australian Open, owns a 27-match winning streak.
“You need to play very well to stand a chance against him, and the truth is that Rafael did not play at his best,” said Toni Nadal, who coaches his nephew.
Significant as this victory was, Djokovic has more work to do in pursuit of a first French Open title to complete a career Grand Slam.
“Well, he has to win two more matches, but this match only increase the confidence,” Nadal said. “He’s probably in the best moment of his career. He has a good chance to win here.”
In Friday’s semifinals, the 28-year-old Serb will meet No. 3 Andy Murray, who eliminated 2013 runner-up David Ferrer 7-6 (4), 6-2, 5-7, 6-1. The other semifinal is Stan Warinka vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
In the women’s semifinals Thursday, Serena Williams plays Timea Bacsinszky, and Ana Ivanovic meets Lucie Safarova. Williams advanced with a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Sara Errani, and Bacsinszky beat Alison Van Uytvanck 6-4, 7-5.
This was the 44th meeting between Djokovic and Nadal, more than any two other men in the nearly half-century of professional tennis at majors. While Nadal still leads 23-21, Djokovic proved to be far superior on this particular late afternoon.
“My tactic was to play aggressively and to stay focused on all points,” Djokovic said. “It’s not easy. Probably easier to say than do against Rafa.”
After 15 minutes, he led 4-0, taking 18 of the first 22 points, including one 19-stroke delight in which both men sprinted to track down lobs.
Then, as though suddenly recalling who he is and where he was, Nadal snapped to it.
It took Nadal 21 minutes to complete the minimal task of claiming a game, with the help of an on-the-run, down-the-line backhand passing winner so exquisite Djokovic gave a thumb’s up. That helped the Spaniard get to 4-all.
Couldn’t have known it at the time, but that turned out to be his last surge. Nadal saved three set points while trailing 5-4, then another two at 6-5, despite missing an easy overhead early in the game. But Djokovic converted his sixth chance, breaking Nadal to seize the first set.
Djokovic wanted the court watered after that, a request that was ignored, leading to a series of complaints from him to chair umpire Cedric Mourier. A couple of times in the second set, Djokovic slipped on the clay, then glared at Mourier.
No matter. Djokovic was too good for his longtime rival, no matter the conditions.
Howard Fendrich, The Associated Press
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