Novak Djokovic erased any possibility of a sixth straight French Open title for Rafael Nadal today at Court Philippe Chatrier in Paris, demolishing the Spanish southpaw in straight sets on in their quarterfinal match. The defeat pushed Nadal’s career record at the Parisian complex to a tidy 70-2 — a mark any other man or woman would lust over. For Nadal, though, every defeat at Roland Garros carries far more significance than it does for even his contemporary superstars. That said, let’s look at what this result means for the two men that played an instant classic today:
What it means for Djokovic
With his emphatic 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 win, Djokovic finally cleared the hurdle of his longtime foil at the French Open and asserted himself as the clear favorite moving forward in the tournament. He has already won this year’s Australian Open, bringing his career Grand Slam total to eight titles and could finally complete the career Slam at the one tournament that eluded him just as it did Roger Federer for so long thanks to Nadal’s longtime dominance. Now there are just two more opponents standing between Djokovic and an even stronger place in history.
A semifinal duel with Andy Murray favors the otherworldly level at which Djokovic has been playing on the clay-court circuit this spring. The battle between Djokovic and Murray has heated up in recent years, with Murray turning the tables after 2012 with a win at the London Olympics and then by toppling Novak at the U.S. Open later that year. Since then, Djokovic has taken two Australian Open titles over Murray, while the Scot overcame the Serb at Wimbledon in 2013 to end Great Britain’s long drought at its home tournament. On clay, these two have only met twice, both times before that turning point in Murray’s career. Both times Murray lost, which wouldn’t be shocking here both due to Djokovic’s form and because Murray has lost seven straight over the past two seasons to the Serb and is only 18-8 overall against his rival.
Should he get through to the final either Stanislas Wawrinka or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will await, neither of whom scare Djokovic. Against Wawrinka he is 17-3 lifetime, including a 5-1 record on clay that is marred only by their first head-to-head battle on the surface back in 2006. Djokovic was pushed by the Swiss challenger back in the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open, and lost to him as recently as 2014 in the Aussie quarterfinals. So there is some threat, though not so much on the clay.
As for Tsonga, who would enter that match were he to get there as an overwhelming patriotic favorite of the home crowd, he has an even better record against Djokovic than either Murray or Wawrinka. He is 13-6 lifetime against Novak, including a win in their most recent encounter at the Canadian Open last year. On clay, though, he is 0-3 lifetime against Djokovic, including two losses at Roland Garros. Despite the home-court advantage and historical record, current form coupled with this rare opportunity are unlikely to lead to any stumbles by Djokovic.
What it means for Nadal
When Robin Soderling defeated Rafael Nadal in four sets at the 2009 French Open, it felt like little more than a blip. Nadal charged right back the following year and recommenced a streak of dominance that saw him go 66-1 at Roland Garros from 2005 through 2014. Over that span he won nine out of 10 titles available, padding his career Grand Slam totals on the crushed red brick in Paris; those nine titles comprise a majority of his 14 total Grand Slam titles during his career, and had he won at Roland Garros this year that number would have climbed to fully two-thirds of his major wins.
Instead this victory feels a whole lot different than that 2009 aberration. Repeated injury woes have reduced Nadal’s ability to dominate the sport like he did back during his epic run of 2008. One need look only at the fact that his only victories in 2015 have come in doubles at the Qatar Open in January; his only singles title came on the first day of March in Buenos Aires, where he knocked off doubles partner Juan Monaco in a third-tier ATP Masters series event.
His game has simply been waning over the past few years. He has failed to reach the semifinals now in three straight Grand Slams, not counting the fact that he sat out last year’s U.S. Open due to a wrist injury. His high-octane style simply hasn’t been kind to his body, and with his defeat against Djokovic coming on his 29th birthday there is little objective logic that would assume that injury issues are going to become less of a problem for Nadal rather than a larger one.
The French Open has always been his sanctuary, and the fact that Roland Garros is the most forgiving surface for his style of play there is still a chance that Nadal comes back next year and wins an unprecedented tenth title at a single Grand Slam tournament. But wins are already coming less frequently for the Spaniard, and it would be just as logical for him to leave early and near the top of his game like his historical clay-court corollary Bjorn Borg. Nadal’s place in history is already concrete, and even a few years of diminishing returns would do nothing to tarnish that legacy, but the nature of Djokovic’s dominance coupled with his current ranking already signifies that the end might be approaching for the greatest clay-court specialist in history.