Nadal ensured that he, not Djokovic, will be ranked No. 1 on Monday. In the process, Nadal once again prevented six-time major champion Djokovic from completing a career Grand Slam.
"He deserves to win this tournament," Nadal said. "I am sure he will do it in the future."
Djokovic had won their four most recent matches, including on clay in the best-of-three-set final at Rome last month. Beating Nadal in best-of-five is a whole other matter.
Nadal also topped Djokovic in the 2012 final, and the 2013 semifinals. In all, Nadal leads Djokovic 6-0 at the French Open, 9-3 at major tournaments, and 23-19 in total. No other pair of men has played each other as often.
The defeat in Rome was one of three this season on clay for Nadal, raising questions about whether he'd be unbeatable at Roland Garros this time. There also was the matter of his troublesome back, which flared up during a loss to Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open final and slowed his serve at times during the French Open.
For 3 1/2 hours Sunday, when the sky was crystal clear and the temperature touched 80 degrees (27 Celsius), Djokovic gave everything he had, even spitting up on court.
"I played at the maximum of my power, my strength, and my capability," Djokovic said, "but Rafa was the best player."
Using his backhand to great effect against Nadal's forehand early, Djokovic grabbed the first set, and got to 5-all in the second.
"I felt," Nadal said, "the match was more in his hands at the beginning."
Knowing that overcoming a two-set hole might be too much even for him, Nadal raised his level, taking 20 of 26 points to claim that set and a 3-0 lead in the third.