Novak Djokovic crushed the French Open’s history maker and now the Serb is moving ever closer to joining the record books himself.
Djokovic powered past Rafael Nadal 7-5 6-3 6-1 in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros on Wednesday to hand the “King of Clay” only his second defeat in 72 matches in southwest Paris.
If the world No. 1 wins his next two outings, he’ll become the eighth man to complete the career grand slam.
“It’s definitely a big win,” Djokovic told reporters. “A match that I will remember for a long time.”
On this form, Andy Murray will need to produce something extraordinary to oust Djokovic in the semifinals. Murray, who passed a significant test himself by topping 2013 finalist David Ferrer for the first time on clay, has lost seven in a row to his childhood pal.
But for Nadal, it wasn’t the present he was looking for on his 29th birthday.
Indeed in the titanic battle between the hottest player in tennis – Djokovic carried a winning streak of 26 matches into the quarterfinal – and the French Open’s unprecedented nine-time champion, much of it was lopsided.
“When you play against an opponent that is winning almost every match like Novak and you are not playing consistent during the whole match, then (losing) is an option,” Nadal told reporters.
The hype greatly exceeded the drama, not that Djokovic will mind.
The women’s No. 1, Serena Williams, is in pole position too as she seeks a third French Open crown. She improved to 9-1 in her last 10 grand slam quarterfinals by defeating Sara Errani 6-1 6-3 earlier Wednesday.
And in that lone loss to Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open two years ago, Williams was hampered by ankle and back injuries.
Physically and mentally it seems Djokovic has never been better.
That says something, since he began 2011 by winning 41 matches in succession.
Attempting to overturn a 0-6 record against Nadal at Roland Garros, he came out swinging – and connecting. Nadal, meanwhile, left many of his heavily-spun shots short in the court, allowing Djokovic to go on the offensive.
It was soon 4-0, with the final point of the fourth game providing the most exciting moment of the two-and-a-half-hour contest.
Djokovic stretched at the net to reach a Nadal backhand and his forehand turned into an outstanding lob. Nadal chased back and his own defensive lob found the corner but Djokovic retrieved again. Three shots later, Nadal’s attempted forehand drop shot sailed into the net.
Undaunted, Nadal rallied for 4-4. The match was on. But a missed smash when serving at 5-6, 30-15 proved costly, and Djokovic took the pivotal opener on his sixth set-point.
“The first set was very decisive,” Djokovic’s co-coach Marian Vajda told reporters.
Once Djokovic broke for 5-3 in the second, Nadal unraveled.
The 14-time grand slam winner said this week the nerves that affected him early in the season had largely dissipated, yet his confidence is still clearly lacking. Not winning a European clay-court tournament entering Paris for the first time since 2004 knocked back the Mallorcan and saw his French Open seeding drop to sixth.
“I’m going to come back next year and I’m going to try to be competitive, try to be better prepared than this year and try to arrive with a little bit more good confidence,” he said.
Nadal succumbed quickly in the third, his fate all but sealed when Djokovic struck a net-cord winner for a 3-0 double-break advantage.
“Obviously he didn’t serve that well, especially in the second and third set,” said Djokovic. “He made some unforced errors that are not characteristic for him maybe from the forehand.
“But that’s what happens when you don’t feel comfortable on the court.”
The 2012 finale between the men ended with a Djokovic double fault; this year Nadal made the same mistake to cap his miserable day in the French capital.
Robin Soderling, who eliminated Nadal in the fourth round in 2009, now has company.
“I am happy the way I recovered my level in the last month,” said Nadal, who tallied only three winners on his once feared forehand. “But probably not enough yet to play against and win against Novak.
“I’m going to fight. I lost in 2009 and it was not the end. I lost in 2015 and it’s not the end.”
As euphoric as Djokovic must have felt Wednesday evening, he’ll need to recover – mentally more than anything else – when confronting Murray because it’s not the end for him this fortnight.
“I would feel more emotional but there is still the tournament,” said Vajda. “It’s not the final. It’s tough to concentrate like this but I think Novak is fantastic in this. He can concentrate. He knows it’s not the end of the tournament.”
The Scot, who ran out a 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 5-7 6-1 winner over Ferrer, has yet to lose during this clay-court season.
Similar to his fellow Spaniard, the first set was a major blow to Ferrer: He missed two set points on Murray’s serve at 5-6. Even though Ferrer saved a match point in the third, the damage had already been done.
Djokovic topped Murray in the Australian Open final after looking out of sorts physically in the third set. With the temperature expected to hit the low 30s Celsius on Friday and Djokovic at times wilting in the heat, those steamy conditions may aid the twice grand slam champion. Home hope Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and 2014 Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka contest the other semi.
After a patchy spell in the second, third and fourth rounds at Roland Garros, Williams is well on her way to a 20th grand slam title.
This year’s French Open is mirroring the Australian Open for the 33-year-old: Williams struggled in the early rounds before raising her level in Melbourne and not dropping a set from the quarterfinal onwards.
“The tougher it gets, the harder I have to play,” the American told reporters.
Williams began her clash with the 2012 finalist holding a 8-0 head-to-head record, though in their last meeting in the Fed Cup in April on clay, the Italian came within two points of staging an upset.
Wednesday was nowhere near as close.
“I felt if I had not played that match (in the Fed Cup), I probably would still be out there fighting now,” said Williams. “She changed her game against me, and I knew what to expect this time.”
Williams coasted in the first set, then earned the key break of the second at 3-3. Overall she struck 39 winners and committed only 23 unforced errors.
Her elbow problems, which forced her to withdraw from last month’s Italian Open, appear to be easing – Williams hit 10 aces past Errani.
She’ll face Timea Bacsinszky in Thursday’s semifinals after the 23rd seed beat Belgian outsider Alison van Uytvanck 6-4 7-5. Bacsinszky became the first Swiss woman to make the semis at Roland Garros since Martina Hingis in 2001.
She is enjoying a breakthrough season, winning two titles. Williams, however, snapped her 15-match winning streak in the quarterfinals in Indian Wells, California in March.
Thursday’s other last-four match pits 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic – Djokovic’s longtime friend – against 2014 Wimbledon semifinalist Lucie Safarova, who ended the Paris reign of Maria Sharapova on Monday.