World No.1 Novak Djokovic says he is proud of the fight he put up in another vintage contest against his great rival Rafael Nadal in the French Open quarter-final, admitting he lost to a better player.

Djokovic, the 35-year-old winner of 20 grand slam titles, conceded an early break to Nadal in each of the first three sets and had two set points in the fourth. But the Spaniard clinched the tiebreaker to end the contest in four hours 12 minutes on Wednesday morning.

“I gave my best,” Djokovic told reporters after his 6-2 4-6 6-2 7-6 (7-4) defeat.

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“I know I could have played better. I’m proud of fighting and staying till the last shot.

“I lost to a better player today. Had my chances. Didn’t use them. That’s it. You know, over four hours’ battle, and I have to accept this defeat.”

Djokovic defeated Nadal, who has won 13 of his men’s record 21 grand slam titles on the Parisian clay, in last year’s semi-finals before lifting the Musketeers’ Cup for a second time in his career.

Nadal arrived in the French capital this year after two injuries that had hampered his preparations and came into Tuesday’s contest following a tough five-set win over Canadian Felix Auger Aliassime in his last match. But he still found the stamina to beat Djokovic in their 59th career meeting.

In contrast, Djokovic picked up an ATP 1000 title in Rome before arriving at Roland Garros and had not lost a set in his previous rounds at the clay-court grand slam.

The Serb congratulated Nadal for the victory and said he was not surprised by his opponent’s physical fitness during the long battle under the lights of Court Philippe Chatrier.

“He was a better player I think in important moments,” Djokovic said.

“I didn’t start so great … I was gaining momentum as I was coming back in the second set, managed to win the second set, and I thought, ‘OK, I’m back in the game.

“But then he had another two, three fantastic games at the beginning of the third. He was just able to take his tennis to another level in those, particularly moments at the beginning of all sets, actually, except the fourth.

“I had my chances. Just one or two shots. Could have taken me into a fifth. Then it’s really anybody’s match. But again, he showed why he’s a great champion. Staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did. Congrats to him and his team. No doubt he deserved it.”