By Pritha Sarkar
PARIS (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal's brutal French Open defeat at the hands of Novak Djokovic on Wednesday provoked the predictable question of whether the Spaniard's career is in terminal decline.
Those in the know, however, his fellow players, believe the 29-year-old remains a force to be reckoned with.
Great things had been expected of Nadal's quarter-final battle with Djokovic, but in reality the 44th meeting of the two gladiators was an anti-climax as world number one Djokovic dominated more or less throughout a 7-5 6-3 6-1 victory.
Yet having beaten Nadal for the first time in seven attempts at Roland Garros, Djokovic was not writing him off after becoming only the second man to beat him in 72 matches in Paris.
"At the end of the day, he's human. I understand that people are questioning his game and where he's going to be," 28-year-old Djokovic, who is now favorite for the title which would complete his career grand slam, said
"But if you need a reminder of who he is, just look at his career stats and grand slams that he won."
With 14 majors to his name, Nadal was going for the unprecedented 'decima' at the French Open -- a feat achieved by no man at a single grand slam.
But with injuries and appendicitis keeping Nadal off court during the second half of 2014, 2015 has not been a good year by his own high standards -- he arrived in Paris without winning a European claycourt event for the first time in over a decade.
In fact, his only success has been at a low key tournament in Buenos Aires where the highest ranked opponent he faced was then world number 59 Federico Delbonis.
Nadal could drop as low as 11th when the ATP world rankings are published on Monday and with patchy form on grasscourts in recent years his seeding at Wimbledon is unlikely to be bumped up more than a couple of places, if that.
It all makes gloomy news for Nadal fans, but David Ferrer, his fellow Spaniard, agrees with Djokovic that it is far too early to regard Nadal as a spent force.
"Rafael is still among the best players in the world. We should not rule out Rafa Nadal. There is no player like Nadal," said the 2013 French Open runner-up.
Andy Murray, one of six players to defeat Nadal this year, added: "Rafa is still playing well. Just not as well as before. He's coming back from a pretty rough six-seven month period, struggling with injuries and illness.
"Obviously he had (appendicitis) surgery as well. It takes time. Rafa will come back."
Djokovic was also quick to point out how Nadal was written off after a lengthy injury break in 2012 -- and stormed back to win the French and U.S. Opens in 2013.
"He's somebody that understands what he needs to do when he's feeling down to come back and fight to be the best," said Djokovic.
"That's what he has done after nine months of absence from the tour and he came back, had one of the best years of his life in 2013. So I don't think that this is a big deal.
"He is 29 and still has years in front of him, and I'm sure he's going to bounce back and play very strong."
(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by)