Andy Murray retains the belief that he might one day win the French Open, but the 25-year-old Scot will have to put away his clay-court shoes for another year. Roland Garros has always been the most challenging Grand Slam tournament for Murray and his sixth visit ended in a quarter-final defeat here last night to an opponent for whom playing on this surface comes as naturally as eating paella and tapas.
David Ferrer may be one of the game's least charismatic players, but the 30-year-old Spaniard is a fine exponent of clay-court tennis and was simply too good for the world No 4, who was beaten 6-4, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2. Murray admitted afterwards that tomorrow's semi-final line-up will feature the world's four best players on clay. Ferrer will face Rafael Nadal, who beat Nicolas Almagro 7-6, 6-2, 6-3 to maintain his record of not dropping a set here this year, while Novak Djokovic will take on Roger Federer.
Given that Murray has been troubled by a bad back and had arrived in only moderate form, going out in the quarter-finals was probably the best he could have expected. Nevertheless, after becoming the first player to take a set off Ferrer he might reflect on the opportunities he failed to convert. Murray had 15 break points and took just five of them; Ferrer converted 10 of his 19.
The most telling factor was Murray's repeated failure to build on positions of strength. On all five occasions when the Scot broke serve, Ferrer broke back immediately. It has been a frequent failing in the past and one that Murray needs to address.
Although Ferrer is through to his first semi-final here, the Spaniard has always excelled on clay. He is devastatingly quick around the court, makes up for any lack of power with his naturally aggressive game and can make Trojans look like slackers with his appetite for hard work.
The match was played on the second of the main stadiums here, Court Suzanne Lenglen, where the conditions are reckoned to be slower than on Court Philippe Chatrier. On another cold and dank day, with rain in the air, the Scot complained at one stage that the balls were "like rocks". The conditions did not suit him and it was in similar weather on the same court two years ago that he suffered one of his most dispiriting defeats, to Tomas Berdych.
Murray started in admirably aggressive mood, smacking a big backhand winner on only the second point, but Ferrer made the first break in the fourth game of the first set. By the time the Spaniard had established a 5-2 lead Murray had already wasted six break points.
In the next game the Scot saved a set point and finally broke, at the seventh attempt, when Ferrer served for the set at 5-3. However, after failing to take two points to level at 5-5, Murray was broken again, netting a forehand to give Ferrer the first set after 66 minutes.
The pattern for the match had been established. In the second set Murray broke in both the opening game and in the seventh, but on both occasions dropped his own serve immediately afterwards.
Nevertheless, the Scot had upped his game, was striking the ball with more confidence and played an excellent tie-break, despite missing an easy volley on the first point. When Ferrer put a forehand wide on Murray's first set point at 6-3, the Scot bellowed out a cry of 'Yes!' After nearly two and a quarter hours, it was game on.
The momentum was with Murray, but unfortunately the weather was not. A 29-minute break for rain early in the third set came at a bad time for the Scot. On the resumption Ferrer held for 1-1 and then broke for 2-1 in a game in which Murray had five game points. When he broke back to level at 3-3, the inevitable followed. For good measure the Spaniard broke for a third time to take the set 6-3.
When Murray broke for the fifth and last time in the opening game of the fourth set, guess what? From 30-15 up Murray lost three points in succession to hand back the initiative for the last time. He had further break point opportunities but was unable to take them and when he served at 2-5 he was broken for the last time as Ferrer secured victory after three and three-quarter hours.
"I thought I played some good tennis tonight," Murray said afterwards. "I had a lot of chances in the last couple of sets on his serve and I lost a lot of really long games on my serve, which didn't help. He is so solid, so consistent, that if you're not converting your opportunities, it turns to many long games and then the pressure can build on your own serve."
Murray will head back home today. He is due to open his grass-court campaign at the Aegon Championships, which start at Queen's Club on Monday, though he also has to deal with his ongoing back problem. The Scot fell short of confirming that he would definitely play in the tournament, but it would be a surprise if he withdrew given that Wimbledon starts in 18 days' time.
Almagro, another Spaniard who had not dropped a set in the first four rounds, offered some early resistance to Nadal, but the king of clay won 7-6, 6-2, 6-3 to maintain his quest to win the title here for a record seventh time.
French Open semi-finals
Novak Djokovic v Roger Federer
David Ferrer v Rafael Nadal
Samantha Stosur v Sara Errani
Petra Kvitova v Maria Sharapova