Murray bullish as he sets out to seize the chance of a lifetime
Nadal will offer the ultimate test of the British No 1's improvement this afternoon
It was a perfect lob, but with Andy Murray's speed around the court there was never a doubt that he would retrieve it. The Scot got to the ball in good time, turned and even had time to assess where his opponent was. Steadying himself, he won the point by lashing the ball back over the net with his right foot. Even when Murray is playing football tennis as a warm-up at the start of a training session, there is no mistaking the 23-year-old Scot's competitive spirit.
Team Murray were out in force yesterday on Court 16 at Aorangi Park, with Liam Broady, a British junior, giving the world No 4 a reminder of what it is like to face a left-hander. Not that Murray is short of experience against Rafael Nadal, his opponent in this afternoon's Wimbledon semi-finals: they have met 10 times as professionals, including four times in Grand Slam tournaments, and have known each other since their early days on the junior circuit.
On the face of it, their second meeting at the All England Club – Nadal won in straight sets two years ago – could be regarded as a mismatch. Nadal, one year older at 24, has won 40 titles and $31.2m (£20.7m) in prize money, compared with Murray's tally of 14 and $11.2m (£7.4m). Nadal has won seven Grand Slam titles and Murray none, having lost to Roger Federer in the final at both the 2008 US Open and the 2010 Australian Open. Nadal has reached three Wimbledon finals, winning one, while Murray's best performance was his run to last year's semi-finals.
Nadal also has the edge in their head-to-head record, having won seven of their 10 matches, though it is their recent meetings that may give Murray his greatest cause for optimism today. The Scot's victories in both the 2008 US Open semi-finals (his first success against Nadal in their sixth meeting as professionals) and this year's Australian Open quarter-finals (when Nadal retired with a knee injury when two sets and 3-0 down) were arguably the best performances of his career.
Murray also believes that his defeat to Nadal here in 2008, following his five-set victory over Richard Gasquet in the previous round, was a key moment in his career. "I remember being quite tired and my body being quite sore," Murray commented. "I didn't have any chances in the match at all. It was a big turning point for me because after that I realised that to win a Grand Slam you have to be fit to play seven five-set matches, and not just one big match and then be spent after that.
"I went away and practised really hard and improved my game as well, so obviously I needed to get a lot better. It was a good learning experience for me because I needed to improve a lot."
What did Murray remember of his wins over Nadal in New York two years ago and in Melbourne this year? "After I lost to him here in 2008, I practised hard, hitting the ball harder and spending more time in the gym, and I managed to beat him for the first time at the US Open.
"I played him at the Aussie Open this year and it was some of the best tennis I've played. There were some great rallies and great points in that one. Unfortunately he couldn't finish the match because of injury. My game is a lot better than it was in 2008, and I'm sure he has improved as well, so it will be a very different match."
Murray has been criticised in the past for playing too passively, but there should be no danger of that today. The Scot has enjoyed his best successes against Nadal by attacking, moving forward and, on occasions, playing serve-and-volley. He will need to make the right judgments about when to attack the net, but at the same time he knows that the Spaniard likes nothing better than a slugging match from the back of the court.
Nadal can volley beautifully and his improved backhand slice can be an effective stroke on grass, but his default mode is always to play aggressively from the baseline. "I don't want to change a lot of things," Nadal said. "I'm happy with how I'm playing, so I'll try to play my game, which is to try to play aggressively. It's important to serve well. So every day is the same."
Until they arrived here a fortnight ago, the two men had enjoyed contrasting fortunes since the Australian Open. While the Scot did not reach a semi-final in any of his eight appearances in the intervening period, Nadal made a clean sweep of the four biggest clay-court tournaments, including the French Open, and reclaimed his world No 1 ranking.
Both went out comparatively early at the Aegon Championships at Queen's Club in their only grass-court event before Wimbledon, though both have proved their mastery of the surface in the past.
Murray has gone one round further with every appearance here, culminating in his run to last year's semi-finals, while Nadal has lost only two of his last 26 matches at the All England Club, to Federer in the 2006 and 2007 finals.
The one major doubt that always hangs over the Majorcan is the state of his knees. Nadal has learned to play with pain, but he was forced to miss Wimbledon last summer, took many months to rediscover his best level and has felt twinges of pain in matches over the last fortnight.
The Spaniard needs regular treatment to manage the problem and has been wearing strapping above his right knee. It is said that after Wimbledon he will undergo a process involving the injection of blood directly into a tendon in the joint. It is, apparently, as painful as it sounds.
Nevertheless, the hurt of losing today – for either man – would undoubtedly last longer. With Federer out of the running, for Murray in particular this could be the chance of a lifetime.
Murray v Nadal: Strengths and weaknesses
* Backhand Double-handed backhand is best in the business, combining power, accuracy and reliability. Sliced backhand is also a major weapon on grass.
* Return of serve Sees the ball early and lightning reflexes make him one of best returners. Ability to break opponents takes pressure off his own serve.
* Fitness and speed Has built up strength through winter boot camps in Miami and is never found wanting for stamina. Extremely quick around court.
* Second serve Can lack penetration and is sometimes too easily read. First serve can be excellent but he does not put it in court often enough.
* Forehand Not as reliable as his backhand. Can hit huge shots when he flattens it out but can also miscue on more routine strokes.
* Too many options With so many shots in his locker he can choose the wrong option when a more limited player would have no such dilemma.
* Forehand Consistently brilliant. Sheer weight of shot, hit with heavy top-spin, will trouble most opponents, hurrying them into mistakes.
* Resilience Never knows when he is beaten. Recovers well from bad spells in matches and is able to win even when playing well below his best.
* Big-match mentality Plays the big points and big games superbly. Hardly ever shows signs of nerves and body language is nearly always positive .
* Serve Has worked hard on improvements over the last year but his serve, normally a key weapon for left-handers, can be short on power and penetration.
* Knees Always a potential problem. Regularly played through pain in the past but a busy spell over the last three months could eventually take its toll.
* Predictability Although he has excellent volleys and drop shots, he rarely chooses to move off the baseline, where he can hit his big ground strokes.
Lessons from their previous Grand Slam meetings
Australian Open, fourth round, 2007
Nadal won 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1
A defeat, but a match that offered huge encouragement to Murray. By regularly playing serve-and-volley and attacking the net, he upset Nadal with his combination of stop volleys, drop shots and aggressive ground strokes.
Lesson for Murray Keep attacking
Wimbledon, quarter-final, 2008
Nadal won 6-3, 6-2, 6-4
Murray appeared to pay for his exertions against Gasquet in the previous round. Nadal was on top from the start as Murray struggled to cope with the weight of his shots. Murray did not serve well and Nadal was quick to punish anything short.
Lesson for Murray Be physically strong
US Open, semi-final, 2008
Murray won 6-2, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4
Arguably the best performance of his career. Murray, who served well, took the game to Nadal and had the Spaniard on the back foot throughout. Found perfect balance between defence and attack and struck ball with great force.
Lesson for Murray Do not hold back on the power
Australian Open, quarter-final, 2010
Murray won 6-3, 7-6, 3-0 (retired)
Nadal quit with a knee injury in the third set but he was already a beaten man. Murray again adopted an attacking strategy, going for his shots and neutralising Nadal's threat with the power and depth of his ground strokes.
Lesson for Murray Keep Nadal on the back foot
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