Murray courage is no real match for Nadal's killer instinct

Gutsy Scot lifts clay game to new heights but finds world No 1 back to clinical best

The section of the French Open history books occupied by Fred Perry and Bunny Austin will stay unchanged for another year.

Andy Murray's attempt to join his two famous predecessors as the only Britons to play in the final at Roland Garros ended in disappointment here last night, though in time the 24-year-old Scot is likely to look back on this as his breakthrough year on clay courts.

Murray was beaten 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 in his semi-final by Rafael Nadal, but it took the king of clay more than three and a quarter hours to maintain the defence of his crown. Murray kept up the pressure throughout, but Nadal, as he has so often in the past, played superbly on the big points. Murray had 18 break points in the match and took only three of them; Nadal converted six of his 13.

The world No 1, who celebrated his 25th birthday yesterday, may not have been at his best over the last fortnight, but the competitive fire in his belly has never faded. Nadal has now won 44 of the 45 matches he has played on these courts and will equal Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open titles if he wins tomorrow's final against his old rival, Roger Federer, who became the first player this year to beat Novak Djokovic, completing a 7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 victory in near darkness at 9.37pm.

Victory over Federer, whom he has beaten in three previous finals here, would see the Spaniard retain his world No 1 ranking, though Djokovic will replace him if he loses.

Murray will now turn his thoughts to the grass-court season, but he can also reflect on what has been an excellent clay-court campaign. The Scot had arrived back in Europe in woeful form little more than two months ago, having not won a set let alone a match following his run to the Australian Open final, but has responded with two appearances in Masters Series semi-finals and his best ever run at the French Open. He now has the belief that he can live with the very best on a surface that has always been challenging for him.

Court Philippe-Chatrier had been half-empty for the start of the previous day's women's semi-finals, but there were few empty spaces at the beginning of an eagerly anticipated afternoon, with the world's top four men contesting the semi-finals of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time for five years. Outside on the Avenue de la Porte d'Auteuil touts were asking 1,000 euros for a pair of tickets.

The sun beat down at the start, as it has for most of the last fortnight, though a more telling factor was the unpredictable breeze that swirled around the stadium and whipped clay-dust into the players' eyes.

While Murray had plenty of support it was no surprise that the five-times champion had the greater vocal backing. There were times when the Spaniard looked his old self, turning belief-defying defence into thrilling attack, but he was rarely able to sustain such a level over a long period. Much of the credit for that had to go to his opponent, who was joining Mike Sangster and Tim Henman as the only Britons to play in the semi-finals here since Austin in 1937.

Murray was still dosing himself up with pain-killers and anti-inflammatory pills after tearing an ankle tendon in the third round last week. He moved surprisingly well, even after wincing in pain when wrong-footed by a smash early in the match.

Although he played too many loose games on his own serve, Murray was admirably focused in his determination to stop Nadal pulling clear. He kept creating opportunities, only to be repeatedly thwarted as Nadal defended the break points against him.

Murray brought four large bottles of pre-prepared drinks on to the court, clearly ready for a long contest. Nadal arrived with three bananas, apparently expecting to have to replenish his energy levels at some stage.

Before the match Murray had stressed the importance of making a good start, but it was Nadal who streaked into a 5-1 lead as the Scot played two poor service games. Murray retrieved one break to trail 5-3, but the set encapsulated the match as Nadal saved five of the six break points against him. The Spaniard defended the last of them by playing serve-and-volley before going on to win the next two points and the set.

If there was a decisive spell in the match it began at 2-2 in the next set. Murray was broken four times in his next five service games as Nadal took the second set and made what proved to be the only break of the third. Frustratingly for Murray, the Scot's own inroads into Nadal's serve – he broke twice in succession from 2-3 down in the second set – were cancelled out by his own repeated failure to hold. Murray led 40-15 when he served at 5-5, only to let Nadal back in the game, which he eventually won with a forehand driven into the corner.

Murray, however, refused to throw in the towel. Having gone 2-0 down at the start of the third set, the Scot forced break points in each of Nadal's next three service games. Nadal, nevertheless, continued to defend them heroically. When Nadal served for the match at 5-4 he again turned up the volume. A screaming inside-out forehand winner set up match point, which the Spaniard converted when Murray put a forehand into the net. Nadal leapt into the air before sinking to his knees in joyous celebration.

In his post-match interview on the court Nadal had consoling words for a rival and a friend since their days together on the junior circuit. "Andy's a fantastic player," Nadal said. "He deserves to win a Grand Slam soon."

Going for choke: Murray's failure in the final stages

US Open final 2008

Lost to Roger Federer 2-6, 5-7, 2-6

The Swiss needed just one hour and 51 minutes to win his 13th Grand Slam.

Wimbledon semi-final 2009

Lost to Andy Roddick 4-6, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7

Two closely contested tie-breaks denied Murray the opportunity to become the first British man to reach the Wimbledon final since 1938.

Wimbledon semi-final 2010

Lost to Rafael Nadal 4-6, 6-7, 4-6

Had a set-point on his own serve in the second-set tie-break, but couldn't convert, and that was that.

Australian Open final 2010

Lost to Roger Federer 3-6, 4-6, 6-7

Murray, having accounted for Rafael Nadal and Marin Cilic en route to the final, wasted two set points in the third as Federer's greater experience told.

Australian Open final 2011

Lost to Novak Djokovic 4-6, 2-6, 3-6

Became the first player to fail to win a set in his first three Grand Slam finals.

French Open semi-final 2011

Lost to Nadal 4-6, 5-7, 4-6

Cut a frustrated figure as Nadal saved 15 out of 18 break points during the match.

Robin Cottle and Leon Antonio

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