The Centre Court crowd did its best last night to lift Andy Murray to the heights he had scaled 48 hours earlier, but in Rafael Nadal the 21-year-old Scot came up against an opponent who treats mountains like molehills.
After beating Richard Gasquet in a four-hour thriller in the previous round Murray had shown off his bulging biceps, celebrating the physical strength that had helped him to come back from two sets down. No one outmuscles Nadal, however, and the strong man of world tennis kicked sand in Murray's face, beating the British No 1 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
"He played so much better than me," Murray admitted afterwards. "His forehand was ridiculous. He was hitting the ball so close to the line and so hard that it was difficult for me to get into a rhythm. I felt rushed on every point."
Murray insisted that the physical effects of his victory over Gasquet had no bearing, but maybe the mental fall-out took its toll. The Scot did not chase around the court with the exuberance that had eventually destroyed Gasquet's spirit and was unable to raise his game to the levels that had generated such an extraordinary atmosphere on Monday night.
He had acknowledged in the aftermath of that victory that it was his job to provide the spark that would ignite the home crowd against Nadal, but the world No 2 never gave him a chance. The sheer speed of Nadal's ground strokes had Murray constantly stretched and denied him the opportunity to adopt the attacking game that he had wanted to play.
Murray's returns are usually one of the strongest parts of his game, but he never got to grips with the left-handed Nadal's serve. The Spaniard won 88 per cent of his points on first serve and 80 per cent on second as Murray failed to force a single break point, winning only five points on Nadal's serve in the first two sets. His own serve was inconsistent and Nadal punished anything lacking penetration.
The French Open champion has reached the last two finals here, losing to Roger Federer on both occasions, and the two men will be odds-on to meet again on Sunday. Nadal, who now plays the winner of last night's unfinished match between Rainer Schuettler and Arnaud Clement, came desperately close to winning 12 months ago and while Federer is looking imperious there is no doubt that the world No 2 has taken his grass-court game to a new level this summer.
Having become the first Spaniard for 36 years to win a grass-court title when he won at Queen's Club last month, Nadal will now aim to emulate the 1966 feat of Manuel Santana, the only man from his country to win the title here. Should he succeed, Nadal would also become only the third man in the Open era after Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg to win at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year.
Nadal said he had never played better at Wimbledon than in the first and second sets. "I played very aggressively all the time," he said. "Every time I tried to hit the ball close to the lines. I knew that if I played slowly it would be very difficult to beat Andy. To beat him you have to play at a higher rhythm than him."
Murray described Nadal's consistency as "unbelievable" and thought the Spaniard was playing better than ever. "He brings great intensity to every single match and for sure he's hitting the ball harder now," he said. "He still plays a lot of topspin, but he's hitting the ball lower over the net with the same amount of spin, so it's shooting through the court a bit more, which makes it harder."
Asked what he thought Nadal's chances would be against Federer, Murray replied: "I think he has a great chance. If he plays that well and returns like that I think he's very close to being the favourite to win the tournament. He was close last year and I think he's playing better now."
Murray, who was attempting to join Roger Taylor and Tim Henman as the only British men to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals since the sport went open, should see this tournament as progress in his career, but it was a disappointing way for his best run in a Grand Slam to end. In terms of the margin of defeat it was reminiscent of his campaign here two years ago, when he played one of the matches of his life to beat Andy Roddick in the third round and followed that with a flat performance against Marcos Baghdatis in the fourth.
If Murray had any doubt about the size of his task it was underlined by the third point. Both players pulled each other across the court, but Murray always looked the more stretched and Nadal finished the point with a simple drop shot that the Scot never looked like reaching.
Murray saved two break points to level at 3-3, but Nadal broke two games later after two poor shots by the Scot. An attempted drop shot hit the net when there were easier options available and at 30-40 a Pete Sampras-style slam-dunk smash landed way beyond the baseline.
Nadal served out to take the first set in only 35 minutes and was soon a break up in the second as Murray played a poor game at 1-1. After the Spaniard had hit a forehand winner down the line on the first point the Scot presented him with the next three, putting a backhand in the net, missing a simple volley and then serving a double fault.
At 2-4 down he dropped his serve to love again, Nadal rounding off with a lovely backhand cross-court pass. The Spaniard served out for the second set, broke again in the sixth game of the third and completed victory after an hour and 55 minutes when Murray hit a forehand long.
Nadal was gracious in victory, insisting that Murray would soon be a top five player, but this was a sharp reminder that the biggest gap in tennis is that between the top three – Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic – and the rest.Reuse content