PARIS — By Rafael Nadal's standards, his semifinal match at the French Open was close: He lost 12 games and nearly lost a set.

The king of clay rose to the challenge Friday at Roland Garros, beating No. 3-seeded Novak Djokovic 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (3).

Nadal had lost only three games in each of his previous two matches. He's one win from becoming the first player since Bjorn Borg in 1981 to win four consecutive French Open titles.

Borg watched from the first row behind the baseline and rose with the rest of the crowd to applaud when Nadal completed the victory.

The Spaniard's opponent Sunday will be the winner of the second semifinal between unseeded Frenchman Gael Monfils and top-ranked Roger Federer, who's bidding for the only Grand Slam title he has yet to win.

Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina will bid for their first Grand Slam title Saturday in the women's final.

Nadal improved to 27-0 at Roland Garros and eliminated Djokovic from the tournament for the third consecutive year. The result prevented Djokovic from overtaking Nadal for the No. 2 ranking.

Nadal repeatedly lured Djokovic into long baseline rallies and won most of them, pushing the Serb from corner to corner with his muscular groundstrokes.

Djokovic served poorly for much of the match and struggled to hold, facing 14 break points while Nadal faced only one in the first two sets.

With Nadal up two breaks in the third set at 3-0, Djokovic began to hit his groundstrokes even harder, and the high-risk tactic worked for a while. The Serb twice broke back, the second time to reach 5-all, and had a set point two games later, which Nadal saved with a forehand winner.

The crowd roared in support of Djokovic, hoping for more tennis. But in the tiebreaker Nadal raced to a 6-0 lead. He made several saves in the final rally before leaping to hit an overhead winner, then collapsed to his back in jubilation.

He rose covered in the clay he loves and punched the air. A disappointed Djokovic heaved his racket to the crowd, and both players won thunderous ovations as they headed for the exit.

Nadal summoned big serves on the rare occasions he was in trouble, and he scrambled about the court to hit improbable winners. In the final game of the first set, Djokovic appeared to hit a perfect drop shot, but Nadal charged forward to scoop it crosscourt for a winner.

A chagrinned Djokovic applauded by tapping his strings, and two points later Nadal closed out the set.

Nadal briefly encountered resistance in the second set when he faced a break point serving at 2-1. He reacted by winning the next 11 points for a 5-1 lead.

Straight sets are nothing new for Nadal, who has dropped only seven sets at Roland Garros — none in 2008. He has lost only 16 games in the past five rounds.