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Djokovic beats French Open champ Nadal in surprising quarter

Novak Djokovic hands Rafael Nadal his second defeat in 72 career matches at French Open quarterfinal match.

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    Serbia's Novak Djokovic hugs Spain's Rafael Nadal (l.) after winning the quarterfinal match of the French Open tennis tournament in three sets, 7-5, 6-3, 6-1, at the Roland Garros stadium, in Paris, France, Wednesday, June 3, 2015.
    David Vincent/AP
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Novak Djokovic ended Rafael Nadal's 39-match French Open winning streak by beating the nine-time champion in a surprisingly lopsided quarterfinal 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 on Wednesday.

It is only the second defeat for Nadal in 72 career matches at Roland Garros — and second in 95 best-of-five-set matches anywhere on red clay.

The other came in the fourth round in 2009 against Robin Soderling. Before that, Nadal had won four championships in a row at the French Open. And since? Nadal had collected a record five consecutive French Open trophies.

The No. 1-ranked Djokovic lost all six previous matches he'd played against Nadal in Paris, including the 2012 and 2014 finals.

But Djokovic was dominant for stretches this time, allowing 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 time after time to applaud, Djokovic conjured up 45 winners to only 16 for Nadal, whose 29th birthday was Wednesday.

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. "But he remains a champion and it's always a pleasure to play against him."

This was only a quarterfinal because Nadal's ranking had slipped so far he was seeded sixth, despite all of his unprecedented success at the French Open. Nadal missed time last season with a right wrist injury, then had appendix surgery during the offseason.

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 new rankings come out Monday, he'll be no better than 10th, his worst spot since April 2005.

Significant as the victory was for Djokovic, no trophy was on offer. He'll have to wait for that.

Now Djokovic moves into the semifinals as he pursues his first French Open title, which would complete a career Grand Slam. On Friday, the 28-year-old Serb will meet either No. 3 Andy Murray or No. 7 David Ferrer.

Djokovic, who won his eighth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January, owns a 27-match winning streak.

This was the 44th meeting between Djokovic and Nadal, more than any two other men have faced each other in the nearly half-century of professional tennis at major tournaments. And while Nadal still leads 23-21, Djokovic proved to be far superior on this particular late afternoon.

There were only a few puffs of clouds in an otherwise electric blue sky — matching the color of Nadal's entire ensemble, from headband and wristbands to socks and shoes — and Djokovic began superbly. He managed to avoid too many lengthy baseline exchanges, mixed in drop shots — five won points in the opening four games — and used his backhand to perfection.

"My tactic was to play aggressively and to stay focused on all points," Djokovic said. "It's not easy — probably easier to say than to actually do it 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 remembering 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 that Djokovic gave it a thumb's up. That began a stretch of four consecutive games for the Spaniard, making it 4-all.

Couldn't have known it at the time, but that turned out to be Nadal's last surge. He saved three set points while trailing 5-4, then another two at 6-5. 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.

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