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Nadal is so at home at Roland Garros that the ballkids know, seemingly without being told, to lay out a towel on the red clay next to his bench so his white equipment bag doesn’t get dirty. Beating him was always going to require Djokovic’s very best tennis, and he only delivered that in patches. To breach Nadal’s defenses, Djokovic was forced to aim for the sidelines. Often, the risk didn’t pay off. But he did have some success with serve and volley and a few elegant lobs over Nadal’s head _ variety that may help him unlock the riddle of beating Nadal on his best surface next time.

“How much is he going to improve on clay? So much,” said Wilander. “After today, he’s going to figure, ‘OK, I could have won that match if I do this and this, and I work on my forehand and maybe come in a little more, maybe more surprise serve and volley. Three or four points makes a big difference.’ He’s right there. They better watch out for him on clay next year, because he’ll be heading in the other direction, I think. I really do.”

What a prospect. For many, Federer is the greatest player in tennis history. His record 16 major titles give his fans a gilt-edged argument. Without Nadal, Federer would have had more. Without Federer, so might Nadal. And, without them, Djokovic would not have been forced to hone himself into the force he has become _ formidable enough to still be ranked No. 1 despite this defeat.

A golden era, indeed.

“I have great rivals,” Nadal said. “For me, you can feel unlucky or lucky. Both.”

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester