Murray steps up but still falls prey to Nadal

Spaniard muscles past Scot in thrilling style to set up showdown with Federer
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The rest of the world will have the final it wanted but Andy Murray's season ended in glorious defeat here yesterday. Any disappointment Murray will feel at losing his semi-final to Rafael Nadal at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals should be tempered by the knowledge that he had taken part in one of the year's outstanding matches.

Nadal, who will renew his rivalry with Roger Federer this afternoon, beat Murray 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 after more than three hours of sensational tennis. It was hard to know what the 23-year-old Scot could have done better. He served superbly, firing 22 aces, and attacked Nadal with every weapon he has, hitting 53 winners.

There have been times when Murray has been criticised for playing too passively, but he has been rewarded for being the aggressor against Nadal in the past and knew he had to do the same again here. The world No 1, however, is a force of nature and his defence was stupendous.

Almost everything in this event has counted against Nadal – he has only ever won one indoor title, the low-bouncing court does not give him the time he likes on his ground strokes and he faced opponents who thrive in such conditions – but the Majorcan loves nothing better than to overcome odds.

Just as he learned to play on grass and win Wimbledon and adjusted his style to conquer the lightning-fast conditions at the US Open, so the Spaniard has responded to his latest challenge.

When he lost the first set against Andy Roddick six days ago he looked as out-of-sorts as he had when losing all three matches here 12 months earlier. He has improved with every match and could now round off his annus mirabilis, highlighted by his three triumphs at Grand Slam tournaments, with his first victory at these season-ending championships.

Should Nadal win today's final and the $1.63m (about £1.05m) winner's cheque he and Andre Agassi will be the only men to have won all four Grand Slam championships, the year-end title, the Davis Cup and Olympic gold. It will be only his second meeting of the year with Federer, who will be aiming to join Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl as a five-times winner of this title after beating Novak Djokovic 6-1, 6-4 in the second semi-final.

The week has been short of top-quality matches, but Nadal and Murray laid on a classic. The first set could not have been tighter, with both players serving beautifully. Nadal took an early lead in the tie-break, but Murray levelled at 5-5 following a sensational 36-stroke rally. After some meticulous hitting from the back of the court, with the two men trying to outfox each other with variations of pace and spin, Nadal threw in a drop shot, which Murray retrieved. Nadal, forced back into a corner, tried a pass down the line, but Murray cut the ball off at the net.

The 17,500-capacity crowd, who had shown as much support for Nadal until that point, had taken a while to come to life, but erupted into applause for their man. However, on the next two points a netted backhand by Murray and a winning volley by Nadal gave the Spaniard the set.

Murray made the first break of serve in the seventh game of the second set and was on fire by the time he hit a forehand winner down the line to break again and level the match.

When Nadal served at 0-1 and 0-30 in the decider, having lost four games in a row and 14 of the previous 18 points, the impetus appeared to be with Murray, but the Scot's level dropped momentarily as the world No 1 recovered to hold serve and then break for the only time in the match.

Murray, nevertheless, fought back. The Scot saved a match point with a service winner at 3-5 and broke back to level at 5-5 with a backhand pass down the line. Having led 3-0 in the tie-break, he saved a second match point at 6-5 with a bold foray into the net, only for Nadal to secure victory two points later.

Nadal said that it had been "an incredible match". He felt sorry for Murray but added: "He can do everything. He can attack well. He can volley really well. His hands are very good. All the time you have to find solutions to play against him and to try to beat him. I think he's a great champion. For me it's a pleasure to play matches like this against him."

Murray, who has at least ended his season by reclaiming the world No 4 ranking from Robin Soderling, said he loved playing against Nadal. "I don't know if there's been many better than him ever in terms of the way he conducts himself," he said.

As for his own game, Murray said: "The match today is how I want to play all the time. I want to try and build on that for next year. It was a great match to finish the year, but I need to improve because I'm competing with the two best players of all time."