PARIS -- It happened with bewildering speed, a split-screen fast-forward to the French Open semifinals that left the show courts empty at lunchtime Wednesday. The red-clay seas parted again for Rafael Nadal, while Novak Djokovic played like a waterlogged version of his former self.
Nadal continued an uneventful, and so far unimpeded, cruise toward a 10th Roland Garros title that has set an interim record for brevity: a mere 22 games lost en route to the semifinals. His quarterfinal cup of coffee ended after 51 minutes when his opponent, fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta, withdrew with an injury. Nadal was leading 6-2, 2-0.
His next opponent, Austria's 23-year-old Dominic Thiem, is one of the few players currently capable of denting Nadal's hull and showed that in a straight-sets win in Rome last month. Thiem has considerable power and craft and a useful pragmatic streak, which he displayed when asked about Nadal's bludgeoning forehand.
"You cannot defend it all the time,'' said Thiem, who beat Djokovic for the first time in six tries Wednesday. "I just have to watch that I'm not giving [Nadal] his favorite positions on the forehand. I mean, it's one of the best shots I think ever in tennis. You cannot avoid it all the time. I will concede some winners on Friday.''
Nadal certainly will be rested. As Djokovic walked off the court after a 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-0 defeat that hurtled toward its finish in one of the most dismaying and statistically anomalous decisive sets of his career, it was hard not to wonder when he might feel fresh again.
Like most superior athletes, Djokovic's default position is to play through trouble rather than back away. The tunnel of the tennis schedule and its attendant commercial obligations -- especially at this juncture, with Wimbledon little more than three weeks away -- offer little short-term relief.
Yet Djokovic didn't rule out the notion that he might need a break.
"Trust me, I'm thinking about many things, you know, especially in the last couple months,'' he said in response to my direct question in his news conference. "You know, I'm just trying to sense what's the best thing for me now. Obviously, there has been a lot of changes with the team and so forth. So excited to work with Andre [Agassi] and the new team. At the same time, I have responsibility to the game itself, towards others.
"We'll see. Obviously it's not an easy decision to make, but I will see how I feel, anyway, after Roland Garros and then decide what to do next.''
No one is trying harder to diagnose and treat his 12-month slump than the 12-time Grand Slam winner. In recent weeks, Djokovic has changed the logo on his shirt, jettisoned his longtime team and sought part-time guidance from Agassi -- a move that guarantees even more indefinite and microscopic scrutiny.
"Don't put Andre in the midst of this,'' Djokovic said firmly. "This final set, of course, that's all me. ... I don't expect myself to play as bad as I played in the third. I don't wish that. I don't visualize that ever.''
Djokovic hasn't missed a major since 2005. The streak of 50 straight is not unheard of, but his bunched bouquet of a half-dozen championships in a two-year period from 2014-16 was not a professional growth spurt he could sustain. He has competed in Davis Cup annually since 2004, logging 25 ties for Serbia, while other top players took a pass. He has been relatively lucky with injury, but there is a flip side. At the risk of sounding simplistic, his workload may have worked in his favor until it didn't.
The Serb's biggest asset at the moment may be the ongoing, tangible experience of the three contemporaries forever linked to him on the tennis continuum. Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Nadal have all come back from injuries and dips in form to contend for Slam titles. Federer is defying age, Nadal appears to be peaking again and Murray has been patiently whittling his way back to a sharper place.
"I'm feeling like I'm missing consistency,'' Djokovic said. "I play a great match or two in a row, and then I play a completely opposite match. That's what happened today. You know, I guess it comes and goes. As an athlete you have to accept that and get used to it.''
It is a new kind of spin for him.