James Lawton: Champion's fight puts pretender in the shade on a day for giants

Furious reaction after going a set behind marks out Spaniard as something special
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The Independent Online

There were moments here in the Centre Court that were as brilliant as they were illusory. The effect was that you could be forgiven for believing, finally, that Andy Murray was reaching out for his supreme redemption – a place in tomorrow's final against Novak Djokovic.

He was aggressive but controlled, his shots had depth and bite and he just happened to be on top of reigning champion Rafal Nadal.

The trouble was that a career-changing performance was soon enough exposed as simply nothing of the sort. No, it was an act of provocation, one with the worst possible consequence. It concentrated the mind of Nadal in a most ferocious way.

Of course, there are no guarantees when you try to run down a fighter of Nadal's quality.

Nine Grand Slam titles hang from his belt at the age of 25 and when Murray's early authority – and brilliance – forced him into a corner the result was entirely predictable.

Nadal's eyes blazed and his resolution intensified, most ferociously early in the second set when he lifted the tempo so sharply Murray's mask of composure inevitably slipped.

This was most apparent when he missed a routine forehand in the fourth game and then a little later a smash he would have consumed hungrily at any stage of the first set he carried 7-5 in 54 minutes which started as a battle of attrition, then blossomed into some thrilling and creative tennis.

Nadal's counter-attack, however, brought the semi-final to another level of fight and application and Murray and his suddenly anxious entourage were stripped of the hope that there was a remote chance of a trouble-free passage to his first victory in three Wimbledon semi-finals.

No, there were no easy assumptions for Murray, a fact that was underlined almost savagely when Nadal's furious reaction to the loss of the first set brought a phase of sweeping command in the second. Nadal won it 6-2 and gave us the latest evidence that this is indeed one of the great, if not the greatest, of tennis eras.

When Nadal-Murray raged before burning out with the champion in accelerating command – he finished the 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 winner – it was the second intense drama of the day that delivered two finalists of the most daunting quality.

Djokovic's hunger for his third Grand Slam win – after winning two Australian titles – filled the Centre Court yesterday long before the crowd-pleasing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Roger Federer's quarter-final conqueror, was obliged to pack his kitbag for the last time in this tournament in which he had become a folk hero.

Djokovic, who was confirmed as the world's number-one ranked player the moment he reached the final, commands less affection in the stands – perhaps not surprisingly in the polite society he left aghast by the violence of his smashing of a racket last weekend. But he is not likely to spend too many sleepless nights over this. As the cheers mounted for Tsonga, as they had when he was overwhelming the erstwhile demi-god Federer, Djokovic's expression became glacial. But then his racket just got hotter and hotter.

So did that of Nadal last night in response to that chilling early warning from Murray.

Both Djokovic and Nadal insist that Murray has the class to go beyond his three frustrated journeys to Grand Slam finals, two in the Australian Open, one in New York.

They say that he has exceptional ability and that it is only a matter of time before he sets foot on one of the peaks of the game. But even as they say this they are plainly obsessed with their own fight to create standards all of their own.

"He is too good a player not to win a Grand Slam," is a statement that must now being to sound hollow in the 24-year-old Scot's ears. It is a tribute that became haunting last night as Nadal relentessly exacted revenge for the early impertinence – and brilliance – of Murray.

The man from Majorca claimed the third set with immense power and concentration and then immediately invaded Murray's service in the opening game of the fourth.

For Murray it was suddenly a cold summer's night indeed.

He disputed the charge that the one errant forehand had undone him so profoundly. "It was a big point," he said, "but I was playing high-risk tennis for most of the match. I mean, you can't talk about a match that goes almost three hours being decided based on one point. I was going for it. Against Rafa you have to go for the big shots. I slightly over-hit that one. But again they [the television commentators] would have been the same ones that would have said a year ago that I was playing too defensively.

"Today I was going for all my shots, I knew what I had to do against a player of Rafa's quality but then I started to make some mistakes. And yes, it's true that that forehand was one shot I should have made for sure."

Murray had an infinite weariness when he said that. Once again he had dared to think of himself as a champion of Wimbledon but the reaction of Nadal, the man in possession and arguably the most ferocious competitor across all of today's sport, was not exactly encouraging.

Not when it was a case of action rather than words; not when the place he has won with such extraordinary effort and enduring commitment seemed, however briefly, to be at risk.

For Murray the harsh reality is that in everyone's eyes, and not least his own, he remains a work in progress. It is one that at times produces moments of the most exciting promise but last night fulfilment seemed as far away as ever.

Nadal, once again, told the world that Andy Murray is the best player who has never won a Grand Slam title. It was meant to be kind, no doubt, but it was the last thing he wanted to hear. Each times he hears it is sounds a little more like a reproach.