Not much has gone right for Andy Murray since he won Wimbledon last summer but the 27-year-old Scot delivered one of his most encouraging performances of the year here tonight. Even though his Rome Masters quarter-final against Rafael Nadal ended in a 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 defeat, Murray pushed the world No 1 hard in a contest of the highest quality.
Murray has still never beaten the king of clay on his favourite surface, but with the French Open only eight days away the world No 8 should go to Paris heartened by the improved form he has found over the last week.
Although he has not reached a final or beaten a top 10 opponent since his victory over Novak Djokovic in last summer's Wimbledon final, this was arguably Murray's best performance since he returned to competition at the start of this year after a three-month absence following back surgery.
In the first set in particular Murray played superbly. He struck his backhand with ferocious power, served beautifully and always looked to take the game to Nadal, who had won 13 of their previous 18 meetings. The world No 1 has been below his best in recent weeks but proved his unrivalled fighting qualities with his comeback. Even at 4-2 down in the deciding set, Nadal never let his spirits drop.
Murray often travels with a large entourage, but on this occasion the Scot's player box consisted of just two people, his assistant coach, Dani Vallverdu, and his physical trainer, Matt Little. Nadal, meanwhile, appeared to have brought half the population of Majorca with him, including his parents and girlfriend.
On a chilly and damp evening Murray did not waste any time warming to his task. The Scot found a hot streak immediately, hitting two aces in the opening game and racing into a 5-0 lead. After one sensational rally in which he turned stonewall defence into thrilling attack, Murray twice punched the air in celebration.
Murray took the first set in just 37 minutes and had a break point in the opening game of the second before Nadal showed the resilience that makes him such a great competitor. The Spaniard, surprising Murray with some of his forays into the net, went 3-0 up before serving out for the set to take the match into a decider.
When Murray dropped his serve on a double fault in the opening game of the third set it seemed that the momentum had swung decisively in favour of Nadal, but the Scot responded by breaking serve twice to take a 4-2 lead.
By now the match had developed into a gripping contest which regularly brought the crowd to their feet. Nadal went into a frenzy of celebration after breaking back, having stunned Murray by returning a smash to his opponent's feet, and the Scot had to save three break points in his next service game before holding for 5-4.
With the clock approaching midnight, however, Nadal was the man who had the greater physical strength in the closing stages, just as he had in winning three-set matches in the two previous rounds. The Spaniard won 12 of the last 13 points, completing victory after two hours and 40 minutes as Murray hit a return beyond the baseline. Nadal's joy was evident in his leap of celebration, but the world No 1 joined the crowd in applauding Murray off the court.
In the semi-finals Nadal will play Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov, who progressed to his first Masters Series semi-final when Tommy Haas retired with a shoulder problem after losing the first set 6-2. Dimitrov has risen to No 14 in the world rankings after winning three titles in the last seven months,
Djokovic, who will meet Milos Raonic in the other semi-final, survived a typically gruelling encounter with David Ferrer before beating the Spaniard 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 after more than two and a half hours.
Serena Williams will face Ana Ivanovic in the women's semi-finals after beating China's Zhang Shuai 6-1, 6-3. The world No 1 has dropped only 11 games in her first three matches here. Sara Errani, who knocked out Li Na, will face Jelena Jankovic in the other semi-final.