Margins, tiny margins. It is said that what separates the greatest players from the rest is the way they play the big points and Rafael Nadal provided the perfect demonstration of that theory with his victory over Andy Murray in the semi-finals here yesterday.
For long periods there was little to choose between the two men, but when it mattered Nadal showed the steely brilliance that has already taken him to seven Grand Slam titles and the world No 1 ranking.
Nadal won 6-4, 7-6, 6-4. The straight-sets win matched his margin of victory over Murray in the quarter-finals here two years ago, but this was a much better performance by the Scot. One loose game cost him the first set, Nadal won a tight tie-break in the second and Murray let slip a lead in the third.
The world No 4's disappointment at losing in the semi-finals for the second year in succession was huge, particularly as he had his chances. There were echoes of his defeat to Roger Federer in the final of this year's Australian Open, when he played some superb tennis but let opportunities slip, particularly when he gave up a 5-2 lead in the third set, at the end of which he lost five set points in a marathon tie-break.
Murray did not return as well as he can, but the greatest difference between the two men was Nadal's forehand, which he struck with awesome power and ferocious topspin. On one forehand he bent it like Beckham – a moment which the watching footballer would surely have appreciated – to curl the ball around his opponent and inside the tramline. Murray could never match Nadal's forehand power and struggled in vain to force him on to his backhand, the Spaniard repeatedly running round to play the ball on his stronger side.
If Murray did not get into the net as much as he might have liked, that was largely down to the excellence of Nadal's ground strokes, which kept the Scot pegged to the back of the court. Nevertheless, some of the rallies between two of the best athletes in the game were breath-taking. Not only did they get to balls that most players would have given up on but they also contrived repeatedly to hit damaging shots from seemingly impossible positions.
The conditions were perfect, with little breeze to disturb the warm air and the court playing hard and fast following the glorious weather of the last fortnight. The Centre Court crowd were in good voice, with almost as much support for Nadal as there was for Murray.
The Scot had never got going in their previous meeting here, but from the very first point it was clear that he was up for the fight, greeting a service winner with a cry of "Come on!" The Scot had been marginally edging the first set, dropping just four points in his first four service games, until he played a poor sequence of shots at 4-4. From 30-15 up he hit a double fault, put a forehand wide after a superb Nadal return and sent a forehand long. Nadal, having made just one unforced error thus far, served out for the set in 37 minutes.
In the second set Murray held serve with something to spare, dropping just four points in his six service games, while Nadal, at last, started to look less than secure. In the fourth game Murray took him to deuce for the first time and in the eighth he forced his first break points, which Nadal defended with a service winner and a brilliant combination of attacking shots.
At 5-5 in the tie-break the Spaniard showed a rare moment of weakness by serving only his second double fault, but Murray was unable to take his only set point. His netted first serve drew a huge sigh from the crowd – he had hit aces on his two previous service points – and a low volley saved the day for Nadal.
The Scot was desperately unlucky to lose the next point, Nadal's backhand flicking off the top of the net and over Murray's racket as he shaped to volley. Murray slammed the net in frustration. Within seconds he had hurled his racket to the floor after Nadal's big forehand to the corner secured the set. At that stage Nadal had won just two more points than Murray in the whole match, but was leading by two sets to love.
Nadal, nevertheless, played his worst game of the afternoon in the opening game of the third set, dropping his serve to love with a series of loose forehands. Murray held on to his advantage until he served at 4-3. From game point, however, he missed an easy volley, hit a double fault when going for a big second serve and then put a poor forehand in the net.
When Murray served at 4-5 he started confidently enough with an ace, but at 30-30 he put a forehand in the net. On match point he moved forward to hit what should have been a winning drive volley, but to his horror the Scot struck the ball beyond the baseline. Nadal fell on his back in celebration before giving Murray a warm embrace at the net. The hurt will linger, but at least Murray knows he was beaten by a player who is rapidly becoming one of the game's greats.