Frustrated Murray says he must get fitter if he is ever going to beat Nadal

There was no shame in losing to the player he now considers the greatest of all time, but in the wake of his four-set defeat to Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals of the US Open here on Saturday night Andy Murray was left to reflect on missed opportunities. Roger Federer was probably troubled by even more painful thoughts after scorning two match points against Novak Djokovic before losing to the Serb in five sets here for the second year in succession.

In both matches there were moments that emphasised how thin the line can be between victory and defeat, how regular success generates inner confidence and how consistently falling just short of your biggest goals can play on the most steely of minds.

Federer, having survived Djokovic's comeback from two-sets down, served at 5-3 and 40-15 in the decider. Djokovic, playing with the freedom of a man who had won all but two of his previous 66 matches, swung his racket on the first match point to hit a stunning forehand return winner.

On the second Federer, knowing that defeat would leave him without a Grand Slam title to show for his year's work for the first time since 2002, hit a forehand which clipped the top of the net and landed out. His chance gone, the Swiss lost four games in a row as Djokovic won 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.

Less than four hours later Murray took a battering from Nadal in the first two sets, recovered to win the third and was playing with renewed belief in the fourth. With Nadal apparently slowing down, the Spaniard served at 0-1 and deuce, whereupon Murray hammered a trademark backhand to create break point.

Murray would have been right back in the match if he had broken serve, but in his eagerness he snatched at what should have been a routine backhand on the next point and put the ball in the net. Nadal held serve and Murray won only one more game as the world No 2 triumphed 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 to beat the Scot in the semi-final of a Grand Slam tournament for the fourth time in the last 14 months. Against Nadal in this summer's Wimbledon semi-finals Murray missed an easy forehand at a crucial stage early in the second set, having won the first, and went into a downward spiral from which he never recovered.

There is no knowing whether Murray would have built on a break early in the fourth set here – the Scot himself admitted that being outplayed in the first two sets had been more crucial – but the moment showed again the fine line that he needs to cross.

Against Nadal in particular Murray must find how to handle an opponent who plays the big points better than anyone. Murray took two of his 10 break points, while Nadal converted six of his 18. "It's just little things which make the difference," Murray said afterwards. "I had chances again tonight but he just plays the break points so well."

If Murray can feel proud to be a member of the greatest quartets of players in history – they would have formed the semi-final line-up in all four Grand Slam tournaments this year but for an injured Nadal's defeat to David Ferrer in Australia and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's comeback from two-sets down against Federer at Wimbledon – it has also meant repeated frustration in his quest to win his first Grand Slam title.

Murray has now lost in three Grand Slam finals and five semi-finals. Andy Roddick, who beat him at Wimbledon two years ago, is the only player other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to get the better of him at that stage of a Grand Slam tournament. "You need to be outstanding when you play the top guys," Murray added. "I would say Rafa is at his peak just now and Djokovic is as well."

The common consensus would be that Federer is the greatest ever, but Murray disagrees. "In my opinion Rafa is the best player there has ever been," he said.

Having joined an elite group of seven Open era players who have reached the semi-finals of every Grand Slam tournament in the same year, Murray will keep his disappointment in perspective. "It's been a good year and not many people have done what I have," he said. "It's tough each time you get to that stage and come up a little bit short. That is difficult to take. Obviously I want to go further and the only way I can do that is by working hard, improving my game and getting physically fitter."

Murray, who was suffering with a sore back at the end but said it would not prevent him playing for Britain in their Davis Cup tie against Hungary in Glasgow next weekend, will continue to seek improvement in his mental approach.

In the first two sets he again conducted a running commentary with himself and pulled at his clothes in frustration at failing to play the way he wanted. Concerned about being drawn into long rallies in his third match in as many days, he was too impatient and went for big shots at the wrong times.

"I'm having a go at myself because I get frustrated," he said. "It is something I've always done since I was young, although it is something I need to improve on. That's not the reason I lost the match, but it is something that could give me an extra one or two per cent. There is one or two per cent in my game and one or two per cent in my head and my focus."

Nadal had sympathy for his victim – "I think if one player deserves to win a Grand Slam Andy is the one and I seriously believe he's going to do it" – but it is the Spaniard who will be playing his 14th Grand Slam final tonight. He has lost only three times, but Djokovic beat him at Wimbledon, which was his fifth win in a row against the world No 2 in finals this year. "He's obviously the favourite," Nadal said. "I know I have to do something better than the other matches to try to change the situation."

Murray knows how the Spaniard feels.

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