The record books will show that Andy Murray reached the Australian Open semi-finals here yesterday as a result of Rafael Nadal's retirement with a knee injury. Ricky Hatton, a guest in Murray's box, might have wondered for a moment whether it was the umpire who had stopped the contest to save Nadal from further punishment.
When the world No 2 threw in the towel, having suffered a recurrence of his knee troubles at the end of the second set, he was trailing 6-3, 7-6, 3-0 after two and a half hours of the best tennis seen here this year. Nadal said afterwards that the last time he had played as well was when he won the title on the same court 12 months ago, yet he had been outplayed on nearly all the crucial points as Murray gave his best display in a Grand Slam tournament since beating the Spaniard for the first time at the 2008 US Open.
That victory took Murray into his first – and so far only – Grand Slam final. On this form the 22-year-old Scot will be the favourite to play in his second this Sunday, although for the moment he will be looking no further than tomorrow's semi-final against Croatia's Marin Cilic. The world No 14 beat Andy Roddick 7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3 in his third five-set match of the fortnight to reach the last four of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.
Murray, who has not dropped a set yet, has been on court for just over 10 hours en route to the semi-finals, more than eight and a half hours less than Cilic, who must be nearing exhaustion. Cilic knocked Murray out of last year's US Open, though the Scot was troubled by a wrist injury that eventually forced him to take a six-week break.
While Murray's brilliance as a counter-attacker and intuitive strategist has never been in doubt, this provided confirmation that he can also turn on the aggression to devastating effect. He played serve-and-volley, went for winners whenever the opportunity arose and neutralised Nadal's threat with the power and depth of his ground strokes.
Nevertheless it is impossible to keep the lid on the Nadal boiler for long and there were some stunning rallies as the two men bombarded each other with full-blooded shots. When you see Nadal in full flight it is a source of great regret that his troublesome knees continue to cast doubts over his future. The 23-year-old Spaniard said that he felt a familiar pain in his right knee as he chased down a drop shot and soon decided that he would not make the same mistake as he had last year by playing on with the injury.
Although he said it was the first time he had had problems with his knees for six months and expects to be back soon, Nadal's decline will be reflected in next week's updated ranking list, when either Murray or Novak Djokovic will replace him as world No 2. Nadal has not won a title since May and this was his 11th defeat in his last 12 matches against top 10 players.
After the match the Spaniard was typically generous in his praise for Murray. "I think he deserves to win his first Grand Slam," Nadal said. "Today was an amazing match in the first two sets. I think we both played really well and I had my chances, but he served unbelievably well when he was at 30-30 or 0-30 or on the break points. I'd like to congratulate him because he's doing really well. I think he has a big chance of winning this tournament."
He would be a popular winner too. While Nadal had the majority of the backing in Rod Laver Arena there was plenty of support for Murray, with pockets of Scottish supporters dotted around the stadium. It was a cool evening, but the crowd were quickly warmed by the pace of the play. This had been billed as the match of the tournament so far and it lived up to expectations.
Past experience told Murray that attack was the best strategy against Nadal. The Spaniard loves nothing better than to slug it out toe-to-toe from the baseline. The longer a rally goes on the more likely he is to win the point.
Murray went for his shots if Nadal hit short and frequently played serve-and-volley, particularly when the Spaniard was hitting backhand returns. Three of the first four break points that Murray saved came after he followed his serve into the net. Nadal's uncle and coach Toni Nadal had said before the match that he feared Murray's serve would be the major difference and when it mattered the Scot served beautifully.
Nadal made the first break in both completed sets, only for Murray to hit back. From 2-1 down Murray won four games in a row, saved three break points when serving at 5-3 and took the first set in 52 minutes.
After the first five games of the second set the match, bizarrely, was held up for nine minutes for an Australia Day fireworks display in the centre of the city less than a mile away. Murray dropped his serve upon the resumption, but broke back immediately with some typically attacking play.
Nadal saved four break points at 5-6, but Murray dominated the tie-break, which he won 7-2. Nadal took a time-out for treatment in the second game of the third set and one game later decided he could not continue.
"I'm obviously disappointed that the match couldn't have finished as I would have liked, but given the position I was in I feel like I would have had a chance of going on to finish the match," Murray said. "I thought I dictated what happened on the court. I played really well and deserved to be up when the match was stopped."
He said the fireworks break, which the players had been warned about in advance, was "quite strange" and added: "You can't imagine them stopping, say, a football World Cup quarter-final in the 60th minute and going: 'We've got a few fireworks, just hang on.' I guess it was probably one of the only times that will ever happen during my career."
Murray is the first British men's singles semi-finalist here for 33 years. John Lloyd, now the country's Davis Cup captain, went on to reach the final in 1977 before losing to Vitas Gerulaitis. Lloyd was here last night and said Murray played so well that it was "scary".
If Cilic and the quarter-finalists in the other half of the draw – Roger Federer, Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – were watching they will probably have thought much the same.
Hatton on court for fellow Briton's show of strength
Ricky Hatton believes Andy Murray should take encouragement from Manchester City, the football club the former world welterweight champion supports. "We haven't had too much to cheer about lately and neither has British tennis," Hatton said after watching Murray beat Rafael Nadal last night. "Maybe the tides are turning."
Hatton, who is here on holiday with his fiancée, joined Murray's support team in their courtside box. He is a big tennis fan, though this was the first match he had ever watched live. "When you see it at the elite level, I would rather have a right-hander come at me than try and return some of those serves," he said.
"Boxers and tennis players are the fittest sports people. Boxing is the hardest game in the world. I know tennis players have a bit longer time on the stool, but if you're out there for four or five hours you have got to be fit. It's one-on-one competition. You can't bring a sub on."
He added: "Andy is a massive boxing fan and he plays tennis like a boxer, flexing his muscles. That's what British fans will love - his passion for it. I'm really proud of him. He's just whacked Nadal off the court."
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