It was a sight that nobody in tennis, except perhaps some supporters of a certain 23-year-old Scot, wanted to see. Rafael Nadal's attempt to become only the third man in history to hold all four Grand Slam titles ended in despair here last night when he lost his Australian Open quarter-final to David Ferrer in straight sets after suffering a hamstring injury early in the match.
Andy Murray, having beaten Alexandr Dolgopolov 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 in his own quarter-final earlier in the day, had no doubt been expecting to renew his rivalry with the world No 1 in the semi-finals tomorrow, but instead of facing a 24-year-old who has won nine Grand Slam titles he will meet a 28-year-old who has never reached a major final.
Ferrer, whose previous best performance in a Grand Slam tournament was a run to the US Open semi-finals four years ago, has beaten Murray in all three of their meetings on clay, but has lost their only two encounters on hard courts, most recently at the O2 Arena in London two months ago. Murray will be the clear favourite in his attempt to reach his third major final – he lost to Roger Federer in New York in 2008 and here last year – as he continues his quest to become the first British man to win a Grand Slam singles title since Fred Perry in 1936.
Nadal had taken time to recover from a virus that laid him low in Doha in his first tournament of the season, but appeared to have recovered his strength by the time he went on court for the last of the quarter-finals. With Murray having won already and Federer meeting Novak Djokovic in today's first semi-final, tournament officials must have been looking forward to a dream line-up in the last four.
After only three games, however, Nadal left the court to take a medical time-out, after which he returned with his left thigh strapped, his movement impaired and his face etched with concern. Long before the end of his 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 defeat he wore the forlorn expression of a man who knew that the chance of making more history had slipped from his grasp.
In the second set the players took a 10-minute break during Melbourne's Australia Day fireworks display, which served only to remind Nadal that this was the second year in succession that he has marked the national holiday here by suffering an injury and going out of the tournament. Since he retired with a knee problem in the third set of his quarter-final against Murray last year he had won 25 Grand Slam matches in succession, a record that only Federer and Rod Laver have beaten in the Open era.
It was to his great credit that Nadal did not quit before the end. "I hate retirements," he said afterwards. "I did that last year and I didn't want a repeat." He was reluctant to talk about the injury. "Out of respect to the winner and to a friend I prefer to talk about the match," he said. "He's having a fantastic tournament. If he keeps playing like this, he's going to have a good chance. Tonight I played against a great player."
Pressed to reveal more about his injury, Nadal said: "It's obvious that I didn't feel at my best. I had a problem during the match, at the very beginning. After that the match was almost over. It's difficult for me to speak about it. In Doha I wasn't healthy. Today I have another problem. It seems like I always have problems when I lose and I don't want to have this image."
He suspected the virus had left him susceptible to injury, but added: "I think I am a very lucky sportsman, considering what has happened in my career. When I have problems I have to accept them with the same calmness as I have the fantastic moments that I have had over the years."
Murray, who holds Nadal in the highest regard, expressed a similar view on Twitter. "If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same," he tweeted, quoting the words of Rudyard Kipling that are written by the players' entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon.
In Ferrer, Murray will face one of the few players as quick as him around the court. The world No 7, who played more singles matches (84) than any other man on the main tour last year, may lack hitting power but is phenomenally fit. The Spaniard is unbeaten this year, having won in Auckland in his only previous tournament. "He's a really tough player," Murray said. "He makes many, many balls. He's incredibly consistent."
Despite dropping his first set in five matches here, Murray had good reason to be happy with his quarter-final victory. Dolgopolov, a 22-year-old Ukrainian, has come of age in this tournament. An unorthodox player who goes for his shots, the world No 46 served well, hitting 16 aces to Murray's nine, and struck some remarkable winners, particularly on his forehand.
Murray, however, played solid tennis throughout, constantly forcing Dolgopolov to hit the extra ball. The Ukrainian made 77 unforced errors, more than double his opponent's total. Murray took time to find his rhythm and played too tentatively in the third set tie-break, though his response in the fourth set was exemplary as he won the first 14 points without reply. Some of the Scot's shot-making was superb. He returned one Dolgopolov smash with a sensational backhand winner down the line and twice won points with exquisite sliced lobs.
Asked where his game stood in comparison with 12 months ago, Murray said: "I think I'm hitting the ball bigger than I was last year. I think there can be a lot of quite subtle differences, but I don't think there's any major change. I don't see many major changes in any of the guys really at the top of the game. You just try to become more consistent, have less weaknesses. I think this year I'm a little bit more solid."
Did he feel less pressure this year? "I'm sure the pressure in my next match might be a bit different to today, but I obviously want to try and reach the final, and, if I get there, to go on to win the tournament. Unless you've been in those positions before, you can't explain what the pressure's like. You expect a lot of yourself."
Vera Zvonareva and Kim Clijsters, Nos 2 and 3 in the world respectively, were meeting in today's women's semi-finals after winning their quarter-final matches in straight sets. Clijsters overcame some late resistance to beat Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3, 7-6, while Zvonareva beat the Czech Republic's Petra Kvitova 6-2, 6-4. Caroline Wozniacki, the world No 1, and China's Li Na were playing in the other semi-final.
George Morgan reached the quarter-finals of the boys' singles when he beat Croatia's Mate Delic 6-4, 6-7, 10-8 after more than two and a half hours. The 17-year-old Briton went on to lose his doubles match in a champions tie-break and was due back on court to play Jeson Patrombonof the Philippines in the first match today.
* Steven Martens has resigned as the Lawn Tennis Association's player director to join the Belgian Football Association as general secretary. Martens has been at the LTA for four years and has been a key figure in changes overseen by Roger Draper, the chief executive.
Murray v Ferrer
Ferrer leads 3-2 overall:
2006 Barcelona (clay) Ferrer won 4-6, 7-6, 6-1
2006 Canada (hard) Murray won 6-2, 7-6
2010 Rome (clay) Ferrer won 6-3, 6-4
2010 Madrid (clay) Ferrer won 7-5, 6-3
2010 London (hard) Murray won 6-2, 6-2