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Switzerland's Roger Federer during his third round match against Germany's Dominik Koepfer. After winning 7-6 (5), 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4) and 7-5, Mr. Federer withdrew from the French Open.CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/Reuters

On Friday, they played the final of the men’s singles at the French Open.

The actual final won’t go off until Sunday. But clay-court Christmas came early this year.

Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2.

When you write it down like that, it sounds simple. But saying you’ve beaten Nadal at the French is like saying you’ve walked down to the beach and pushed back the ocean. The Spaniard has only lost three times at this tournament. Djokovic just did it for the second time.

The other man in Sunday’s capper is Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Alexander Zverev 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 in Friday’s first semi. Tsitsipas – the first Greek to make a major final – wept for joy. That was smart. Tsitsipas got it out of the way while there was still a chance to do it.

On Sunday, Djokovic will steamroll for Tsitsipas for a couple, maybe three, hours and then collect his cheque. Then tennis moves to the grass-court season and we do it all over again in London in three weeks.

That’s how this has gone for so long that we’ve forgotten any other way of doing things. The Big Four became the Big Three – Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer – and have been lumbering forward since.

This year’s French Open is the first major tournament that has the sense of an actual change coming about.

First, we need to talk about Roger.

Federer went to Paris having taken more than a year off to recover from knee surgery.

At an age (39) when most guys have graduated to the oldies tour, Federer’s figured out a better way to do things. He’s created a one-man oldies tour inside the ATP Tour.

How else would you describe Federer’s approach to this year’s French Open? He crushed a journeyman qualifier in the opening match. He struggled with another flagging veteran, Marin Cilic, in his second outing.

He was dropped into an unfamiliar night start in his third, against an Italian comer who didn’t know enough to be scared. Federer’s play in that match brought to mind a race car grinding over the finish line with all four tires blown out. But he won. Then he quit.

“It’s important that I listen to my body and make sure I don’t push myself too quickly on my road to recovery,” Federer said in a statement.

That doesn’t sound like the great racquet artist of our time. It sounds like your dad getting halfway through shovelling the driveway, then deciding to call the neighbour’s kid over to finish the job.

Had it been anyone else, there would have been a hue (though maybe not a cry). They make their money selling tickets to the show. That’s harder to do if the stars can decide they don’t feel like making it in for the afternoon show.

Federer got a pass because he’s Federer. But even he gets only so many mulligans.

This was the act of someone who realizes the end isn’t just near, but directly upon him. Could Wimbledon be Federer’s final curtain call? Or the Tokyo Olympics? Or the U.S. Open?

It can’t possibly extend into next season, can it? Because what would be the purpose of that? Federer was too great to become the guy who’s putting his hand up in the middle of third-round matches because he needs to take a breather.

In team sports, ageing legends can use the mentor excuse to string the dream out long past its sell-by date. But in an individual sport like tennis, it just starts to seem sad. Federer’s not sad yet. But he’s getting close.

The thing that might bear thinking about – some people can live with pity. But the emotion that follows close on its heels is contempt. You want to avoid fan contempt at all costs. It’s bad for the branding.

Though not quite so far gone, Serena Williams, 39, gave off the same impression of a slow fade in Paris.

Her position in women’s tennis is even more pivotal than Federer’s in men’s. She’s it. She’s the whole shebang.

This final sprint for her record-tying 24th major was trending upward a few days ago. Williams said she felt fit and ready. Her late-career main rival, Naomi Osaka, eliminated herself early. The draw had opened up in front of her.

But when Williams lost in the fourth round to a 21-year-old no one’s ever heard of, it was a stretch to call it an upset. Even Williams seemed more dispirited than disappointed.

Federer and Williams have been the twin polestars of tennis for so long, it’s no longer clear who succeeds them.

Osaka is the obvious heir to Williams, but that will mean she has to start playing in tournaments.

Djokovic and Nadal are Federer’s heirs, but they’ve existed alongside him for so long, they are too contemporaneous.

Djokovic appears to have been preparing for this moment not by becoming more like Federer (the approach he took early in his career), but by becoming his dark-side doppelganger. Federer was the impossible cool. Increasingly, Djokovic is the barely contained wild card. The way he screamed, gladiator-style, into the empty stands after winning his quarter-final put you in mind a man with a Bunyan-sized axe to grind. Give the man this much – he understands the beats of good drama.

When empires collapse, it’s slowly and then all of a sudden.

The golden age of tennis that we have all just lived through has been in gradual decline for a generation. This week, we began the final phase.

What remains now is the Big Two – Djokovic and Nadal – and a bunch of aspirants trying to put ladders up on the castle walls. Federer and Williams are now among them. They are no longer any higher on the food chain than Tsitsipas or Coco Gauff.

That’s bad for tournament organizers, tennis executives, Swiss watch companies and broadcasters. But it’s good for tennis players and for tennis.

Tennis can have a few more months of golden oldies. But after that, it needs to find something new to play. Otherwise, it is at risk of growing stale.

We are entering an indeterminate period of low-grade chaos in western culture. Everyone shares that inkling that a lot of things are changing all at once. Tennis is the least important of them, but maybe the most overdue.

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