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.

Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own