Djokovic outplays King of Clay Nadal in every aspect

— -- PARIS -- For a decade now, Rafael Nadal has had a history here at Roland Garros heavier than his forehand.

He won nine French Open titles and produced a frankly ridiculous record of 70-1 -- the best mark for any player ever at a Grand Slam. Even more impressive? His 93-1 record in best-of-five-set matches on clay, as close to unbeatable as it gets, a testament to Rafa's unworldly determination.

The only previous loss was to Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the 2009 tournament, a stunning piece of work at the time -- and even in retrospect.

Wednesday's 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 quarterfinal beatdown at the hands of Novak Djokovic was far less surprising. Nadal has been struggling on clay for the first time in his career, while Djokovic is playing the best tennis of his life.

"It's a special thing, it's a special match," Djokovic said looking happy but weary. "Playing against Rafa on a court he has lost only once, it's not easy to execute the plan you prepared for the match. But I did that. It's definitely a big win. It's a match I will remember for a long time."

The funny/sad thing? Nadal -- the ultimate fighter -- almost seemed to quit in the ragged third set. The match ended with a double fault. Nadal, who has one of the most feared forehands in the game, had exactly three forehand winners. Djokovic had 20 more. The match required 2 hours, 26 minutes, but it felt much, much faster.

Nadal had beaten Djokovic each of the six times they had met here, but on this occasion the world No. 1 did not give in. In fact, he hit out, playing a free, smooth brand of tennis that was a joy to behold.

"I was hoping the result can be three sets for me," Djokovic said. "Even when I was up 5-1, I didn't want to relax and think the win was very near. Because Nadal can easily get back in the match. All the way through I played very strong, very solid. Didn't give him much space to dominate the rallies."

Djokovic has now:

• Won 27 consecutive matches this year and 40 of 42 overall.

• Beaten Nadal for the fourth time in a Grand Slam, twice as many as anyone else, including Roger Federer.

• Taken one step closer to becoming the eighth player in history to complete a career Grand Slam.

"I was doubtful about myself. Eleven years I have been playing here. Nine times I won, twice I lost," Nadal said. ... "In general, Novak [was] in control most of the time," Nadal acknowledged in his postmatch news conference. "He was better than me -- that's it. Is simple when opponent play better than you; he's in better shape than you. It happens. Just congratulate him."

And so there will be no 10th French Open title for Nadal, not this year anyway. His second loss at Roland Garros will have a disastrous effect on his ranking. It will plummet to No. 10 -- or possibly No. 11, if Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beats Stan Wawrinka in Friday's semifinals.

Hardly the way Nadal wanted to spend his 29th birthday.

Djokovic had won five of his past six matches against Nadal, but that one loss came -- you guessed it -- at Roland Garros.

"Playing him here and playing him in any other tournament in the world is completely different," Djokovic said after his fourth-round win against Richard Gasquet. "Conditions are very suitable to his style of the game. He loves playing on [Court Philippe] Chatrier.

"We will see. I never won against him at Roland Garros, but in the other hand I was close a couple of times."

Indeed, the gap has been shrinking over the years. Nine years ago, Djokovic, who had just turned 19, retired from their quarterfinal match after losing the first two sets. In the 2012 final, Djokovic managed to win a single set, his first against Nadal at Roland Garros. The next year he came closest, losing to Rafa 9-7 in the fifth set.

Three hours before they stepped on the court, Djokovic was practicing on an empty Chatrier with a left-handed sparring partner, under the vigilant eye of coach Marian Vajda. He was having a tough time landing forehands. A penny for his thoughts? The Serb came in having won the five most important tournaments of the season, including his fifth Australian Open, but certainly that 0-for-6 mark against Nadal here at Roland Garros had to weigh on his mind.

That question seemed to be answered when Djokovic ran off to a 4-0 lead and the hugely anticipated match had the look and smell of another Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao non-event. There were traces of sympathy support for Rafa as early as Nadal's first service game, and he rallied miraculously, winning the next four games when Djokovic's backhand and first serve deserted him.

After that out-of-sync start, the two settled down to some typically superb stuff. This is where Djokovic put intense pressure on Nadal, taking balls early and maneuvering him to the edges of the court and finishing with a smooth forehand winner. Five times, Djokovic managed to earn a set point and five times, Rafa was able to survive. But on the sixth, 67 minutes into the match, Djokovic hit a beautiful running forehand cross-court and Nadal's lunging backhand volley dropped wide.

It was only a set, but in the larger scheme it was critical. Coming in, Nadal was 16-3 against Djokovic when winning the first set, while Djokovic was 20-4 against Rafa. Put another way, the winner of the first set in their previous 43 matches won 36 of them.

The second set was progressing toward another tiebreaker, when Nadal -- uncharacteristically -- blinked. After two backhand errors he ran around that side and stroked a scrambling forehand long. That led to three more saved set points for Rafa.

At the game's second deuce, Djokovic hit the finest shot of the match. He surprised Nadal with a serve and volley and lunged to his left to hit an exquisite backhand cross-court half-volley that dropped in for a winner. Djokovic raised a defiant fist to his box, then finished the set with a sharply angled forehand.

When Djokovic got a netcord to drop for his second break of Nadal's serve in the third set, the reality began to dawn on the stunned crowd on Chatrier.

"Not happy about my third set," Nadal said, grimacing. "I was there I lost the game, that's it. Good fight in the first, good fight in the second. Third set, I am not happy about how I tried."

There is more work to do for Djokovic, of course. Next up is Andy Murray, who ousted David Ferrer in four sets.

"He has improved on clay, no doubt about it," Djokovic said of Murray. "He always had the touch, one of the best groundstrokes in the game. The furthest he got at Roland Garros is the semifinals. I'm sure he's very motivated to get at least one step further."

It is not too early to wonder if -- with the worst impediment removed (Rafa at Roland Garros) -- Djokovic will win his first French. And, looking beyond this frenzied fortnight, what are his chances of running the entire table? Is it so difficult to imagine him winning at Wimbledon, as he did last year, and the US Open, where he has reached four finals in five years?

Not really.