Given Andy Murray's eye for statistics, one fact about Rafael Nadal will not have escaped his notice as he prepares to face the Spaniard in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open here tomorrow. Since the semi-finals of last year's Madrid Masters, Nadal has played 11 matches against fellow top-10 players and won just one of them.
It is a remarkable record for a 23-year-old man with 36 titles to his name, including six at Grand Slam level and 15 in the Masters Series, and should give encouragement to Murray, who reached the last eight here for the first time with a crushing 7-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory yesterday over John Isner, a 6ft 9in American who knocked Andy Roddick out of last year's US Open. Murray has now reached the quarter-finals at all the Grand Slam events, but this is the first occasion he has done so without losing a set.
Nadal (below) also toppled a man mountain, beating the 6ft 10in Ivo Karlovic 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, but for many months now the world No 2, having struggled to recover from knee and abdominal problems, has failed to scale his former heights when he comes up against his biggest rivals. In his last 11 matches against top 10 opponents Nadal has lost to Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic (three times), Nikolay Davydenko (three times), Juan Martin del Potro (twice) and Robin Soderling, with a victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga his only success.
Murray has lost five of his seven meetings with Nadal, but he won their last Grand Slam confrontation at the 2008 US Open and has good memories of their epic five-set encounter in the fourth round here three years ago. Murray lost, but it was a performance that proved he could live with the best and took so much out of Nadal that he went out in the next round.
"The thing I remember most about it is that it made me lose the tournament," Nadal said yesterday. "I played so badly. It was a tough match, very long. The positive thing was that I won, but the match destroyed me." Nadal said that Murray was one of his toughest opponents. "He can play every single shot well," the Spaniard said. "He serves very well. He can play defence, he can attack, he has good hands. He uses his sliced backhand very well and he's able to change his hands very quickly to play drop shots. He has a lot of options in his game and that's a big advantage.
"We both have our own weapons. The big difference between him and me is that he serves better than I do, but when I'm able to play with rhythm and intensity I can overcome him."
Does Murray think Nadal is vulnerable? "Obviously at the end of last year he was coming back from injury," Murray said. "He needs to play a lot. That's the way he's been brought up. He's always practised loads and he gets to the latter stages of tournaments the whole time.
"He came back and everyone said he was struggling, but he got to quarters and semis. He had some physical problems, which was understandable. If he's physically fit, which he seems to be, it's going to be an incredibly tough match."
Murray added: "I don't feel now that I'm going to get blown off the court against anyone, but even when I was younger I always felt I had an opportunity in the rallies against Rafa because of the way he plays.
"He doesn't have a huge serve, but it's very good. He plays with a lot of top spin and can play a long way behind the baseline, so you always have an opportunity to get into the rallies. You play a lot of long points. He's a great shot-maker as well and it's always fun to play against him. I like the energy he brings to the court."
Murray's victory over Isner was a masterful display. The world No 28 has a huge serve – Murray rates it the best in the game – and a big forehand, but at times he was made to look like a lumbering novice. When Isner came forward Murray repeatedly passed him and when he stayed back the American was tortured with exquisitely-judged drop shots. Isner had one set point when Murray played a loose service game at 5-6 but that was the only moment the world No 4 looked in any trouble. By the third set Murray was in total command and Isner looked a beaten man when the Scot broke him in the fifth game with two stunning shots.
Chasing down a smash, Murray jumped to hit a backhand that Isner failed to dig out and then won the game with a brilliant running backhand pass down the line. When Murray broke again two games later, Isner smashed his racket in frustration.
The prize for Murray or Nadal will be a semi-final against Roddick or Marin Cilic, who were Murray's conquerors in the last two Grand Slam tournaments. Roddick, who ended Murray's best Wimbledon run in the semi-finals, reached the last eight by beating Fernando Gonzalez 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, while Cilic, who knocked out the Scot in the fourth round of the US Open, eliminated Del Potro, the No 4 seed.
Cilic and Del Potro both had gruelling runs to the fourth round and looked exhausted after locking horns for more than four and a half hours. Del Potro, the US Open champion, has been troubled by a wrist injury but pushed Cilic hard before losing 5-7, 6-4, 7-5, 5-7, 6-3.