Brian Viner: What's another 12 months after 74 years? Wait for a British winner goes on

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Watching Andy Murray play tennis yesterday was just like watching Brazil. Unfortunately, Brazil were losing at the time.

The Scot played some inspired tennis in the semi-final of the men's singles at Wimbledon, but had the misfortune to meet a man in even more inspired form, Rafa Nadal. The mighty Spaniard won in straight sets, 6-4, 7-6, 6-4, producing more sporting heartbreak for Britain. So the prospect of a fabulous Spanish double – Nadal winning Wimbledon and his footballing compadres winning the World Cup – continues at least until this evening, when Spain play Paraguay.

And, for the second successive year, Murray has failed to reach a Wimbledon final, drawing scant consolation from having played a full part in a gripping match. The 23-year-old has often said that Nadal is his favourite player to watch, but he'd have preferred a less impressive spectacle yesterday than the one which confronted him across the Centre Court net. Murray really did play beautifully at times, and for part of the first and third sets seemed to have the edge, but ultimately he had no answer to the ferocious competitiveness, thunderous forehand and extraordinary all-round athleticism of the world No 1.

What this means, apart from tomorrow's final being between Nadal and Tomas Berdych, a Czech, is that the long wait for a British winner of the men's singles – the last of whom was Fred Perry in 1936 – must endure for at least 12 months more. But then what's 12 months after 74 years? Not that it would have been wise to pose this question to Murray, lugubrious at the best of times, last night.

The young man from Dunblane had played more impressively than anybody to reach the last four, and he was entitled to believe that he could reproduce his marvellous victory over Nadal in the US Open semi-final two years ago. That stirring performance yielded his first final in one of the game's four Grand Slam events, and he reached another major final in this year's Australian Open, but he has still to acquire a Grand Slam title. Nadal, the elder of the two men but only by 11 months, already has seven.

Their match began about 4pm after Berdych, in the afternoon's other semi-final, had defeated Novak Djokovic in straight sets. Unfortunately, 4pm is also cream-tea time at Wimbledon, and there were at first some shameful gaps in the corporate seats. If Murray v Nadal can't tempt them away from their scones, it's hard to imagine what might.

Still, David Beckham, accompanied by son Brooklyn, managed to get to his seat on time. It was hard to be sure whether it was the sight of Beckham that caused the normally unflappable BBC presenter Sue Barker to lose her cool, or simply her anticipation of the forthcoming match, but she chirped excitedly that Murray and Beckham know one another, having co-starred in a TV commercial to "promote malaria".

Out in the famous arena, there were no such errors. A single break of Murray's serve was enough to secure the first set for Nadal, but there was hardly anything between them, and the second set duly ended with a tiebreak so engrossing that Beckham took his jacket off. Murray had a point to win it, too, after his opponent double-faulted, but just could not get back on level terms.

But in the first game of the third set he broke Nadal's serve to love, re-igniting the hopes of a Centre Court crowd which in truth was only marginally more behind him than Nadal, who is a great Wimbledon favourite. But at 3-4 the Spaniard broke back, and with absolutely no disrespect to Katherine Jenkins, the Welsh mezzo-soprano sitting in the crowd, the fat lady had started to sing.

Also in the crowd was the Duke of York, and having bowed to the Queen on Centre Court last Thursday, Murray now paid his respects to royalty again, in the sense that when he was up he was up, and when he was down he was down. Nadal, by contrast, let nothing – not even the humiliation of being broken to love – derail his determination to reach his fourth Wimbledon final in succession.

Afterwards, Murray rightly pointed out that he had won almost as many points as his opponent. Regrettably, they weren't the right ones. "But you're not going to be able to play every single point on your terms against the best player in the world, one of the best players ever," he added, ruefully.

Similarly disappointed was the Scottish National Party MP Angus MacNeil, who had challenged David Cameron to fly the Saltire over No 10 on Sunday if Murray reached the final. The Prime Minister, who hoisted the St George's flag in support of the England football team, can now duck the issue – at least for another year.