There's something that feels unnatural about the end of the French Open without Rafael Nadal, like there was a computing error and a large part of the tennis database has been deleted.
But that's our new reality, or at least this year's reality, after Novak Djokovic dismissed the nine-time French Open champion in get-off-my-lawn fashion in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros on Wednesday.
Djokovic beat Nadal 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 by wearing down Nadal's forehand, stalling all of Nadal's comeback attempts and out-defending one of the greatest defenders in the game. Djokovic doesn't have the legacy that Nadal has at Roland Garros, and it's likely he'll never even come close, but on Wednesday, Djokovic was better in every facet of the game.
While I still believe that the storylines surrounding this match justified the hype, there was nothing epic about this particular encounter. It was a showcase of mental, physical and clay-court tennis dominance by the Serb that left no question marks or asterisks -- Nadal might still be the King of Clay, but Djokovic is the King of Today.
And as weird as it is to have reached the semifinals of the French Open without Nadal in the mix, there was nothing strange about the actual result of this match. Now, when Robin Soderling beat Nadal back in 2009, that was a shock to the entirety of the tennis universe. But this? This was almost pre-ordained. It would have been a surprise if Nadal had prevailed in this match, based on the dominant form Djokovic has shown this year and the doubt that has defined Nadal's.
Every era comes to an end, every foundation eventually gets a crack, and for Nadal and Roland Garros, this was it. It wasn't a fluke loss. It wasn't an injury or a case of an off day. The right man won. That doesn't mean Nadal will never win again, but it does mean time marches on and it takes a toll on everyone.
So while Nadal will transition to the grass season and attempt to find the gear that has gone missing from his game this year, Djokovic will continue on in this French Open. Usually when these two greats meet, it's for a trophy. But the world No. 1 hasn't won anything yet. He's cleared his biggest hurdle, but he still hasn't crossed the finish line in first place, and there are other worthy obstacles in his way.
In the semifinals, Djokovic will face Andy Murray. In the past, this didn't seem like much of a task on clay, particularly at Roland Garros where Murray was never seen as a threat to the tennis elite. But this year, that has changed. After a 2014 that saw him struggle to come back from back surgery and part ways with coach Ivan Lendl, Murray has proven he's not content to let his legacy rest at two Slams. The Brit has re-emerged as a contender, and this time that label is even appropriate on clay.
With his new coach, Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo, in his box, Murray has been reborn this clay-court season. His forehand has found gravitas that it was always lacking on the surface, and he's discovered the balance of offense and defense that has far too often been missing from his game, no matter the court. He has two clay titles under his belt this year -- after having zero prior -- and is undefeated on the surface coming into Paris. He, too, has beaten Nadal on clay in the last month and is feeling more confident than ever, particularly after taking out David Ferrer with relative ease in the quarterfinals.
Murray has beaten Djokovic on big stages before -- including the finals of both of his Grand Slam victories -- but Djokovic has defeated Murray the last seven times they've played. So while Djokovic certainly has the edge, Murray could very well give him a bigger test than even Nadal did.
The other men's semifinal is between two players who have also given Djokovic some trouble in the past, Stan Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Wawrinka, who won the Australian Open last year, has played his best tennis at this tournament, particularly with his destruction of compatriot Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. There are no obvious weaknesses to his game, and the power, weight and depth of his one-handed backhand is truly a thrilling sight.
The Frenchman Tsonga, meanwhile, has an entire country behind him, and he's playing with the heart, focus and forehand that make him a danger to anyone. He's long had the talent that it seems one would need to win a Slam, but he's never been able to put it all together. Certainly nobody expected him to do so this tournament, which he entered as the No. 14 seed. However, there's something special in the air in Paris, and it's hard not to wonder whether this is the magical run we've all been waiting for Tsonga to make.
So we're just going to have to wait and see what happens the rest of this week and resist the urge to pre-maturely award anyone the trophy. There are only two things we know for sure right now: Nadal will not win his 10th Roland Garros crown this year, and Djokovic has finally defeated him on the clay courts in Paris. But there is no period at the end of this tournament's sentence yet, as there are still stories yet to tell.
The French Open is moving on without its greatest champion, but there are still champions striving for greatness and greats striving for championships.
Over the next few days, we might see Murray win his third Slam, his first on clay, and complete a remarkable mid-career surface renaissance, in the vein of Maria Sharapova. We might see Wawrinka become a multi-Slam champion or Tsonga break the French curse and win an improbable Slam title in front of his hometown fans.
Or, of course, we might see Djokovic win his first French Open title, giving him nine Slams total and his elusive career Slam, and put the exclamation point next to his win over Nadal on Wednesday.