Novak Djokovic has ended Rafael Nadal’s five-year rule of Roland Garros to reach the French Open semi-finals and edge ever closer to a coveted career grand slam.
The world No.1 avenged six previous defeats at the hands of Nadal in Paris with a clinical 7-5 6-3 6-1 quarter-final win over the nine-times champion on Wednesday.
The straight-sets loss, coming on the Spaniard’s 29th birthday, was Nadal’s first in the French capital since 2009 – and only his second ever in 72 matches since triumphing as a teenager back in 2005.
Djokovic’s reward for joining Swede Robin Soderling as the only two men to have conquered the undisputed King of Clay at Roland Garros is a last-four meeting on Friday with either Scottish third seed Andy Murray or Spain’s seventh-seeded former finalist David Ferrer.
Wednesday’s showdown was Djokovic and Nadal’s 13th at a grand slam, setting a new record for most meetings between two men at the majors.
It was also their record 44th duel, but their earliest at a slam since their very first encounter at the 2006 French Open.
As a contest, it never quite lived up to the pre-match hype as Djokovic buried Nadal in two hours and 26 minutes.
But the high-stakes quarter-final certainly featured all the tension and drama of a championship encounter.
Chasing a 27th straight win in an utterly dominant 2015, Djokovic made an early statement, firing a scorching off-forehand winner to break Nadal’s very first service game.
The Serb looked in complete control when he seized a double break for a 4-0 lead in the opening set – but Nadal had other ideas.
Playing every point as if it was his last, the relentless Spaniard bludgeoned his way back into the set, breaking Djokovic in the fifth game and then again in the seventh when the top seed drove what should have been a routine forehand put away into the net.
Djokovic steadied to fashion three set points in an epic 11th game in which Nadal saved two with daring backhand drop shots and overcame a third despite receiving a code violation for exceeding the time limit between points.
As the pressure mounted, Nadal fought off two more set points before Djokovic finally converted on his sixth after 67 minutes when the Spaniard couldn’t negotiate a backhand half-volley at his feet.
There was more controversy in the second set.
After riling Nadal for his untimely code violation, French chair umpire Cedric Mourier came under fire from Djokovic over the watering of Court Philippe Chatrier.
But Djokovic’s angry exchange with Mourier was merely a diversion to the more serious task at hand as the top-ranked title favourite broke Nadal for a third time in the match to take a commanding two-sets-to-love lead.
The quarter-final was as good as over when Djokovic’s net cord winner earned him a double break and 3-0 lead in the third set before Nadal surrendered with a double-fault on match point.
Djokovic’s victory was his first over Nadal at a major since needing almost six hours to put the 14-times grand slam champion away in their epic 2012 Australian Open final in Melbourne.
Nadal had denied Djokovic in the 2012 and 2014 finals in Paris and in the semis in 2007, 2008 and 2013 after stopping the Serb at the last-eight stage in 2006.
But after crushing Nadal’s hopes of an extraordinary 10th title, Djokovic is now two tantalising wins away from joining the Spaniard and Roger Federer, Andre Agassi and Rod Laver as only the fifth man in the 47-year open era to hoist all four grand slam singles trophies.