Rafael Nadal demonstrated his determination to reclaim his position as the king of clay but was pushed to the limit by Andy Murray in a superb semi-final at the Monte Carlo Masters. Nadal, who has not won a Grand Slam title for nearly two years, played with much of his old confidence to beat Murray 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 and reach the 100th final of his career.
Murray played excellent tennis for much of the contest, though his frustrations built up during a number of heated confrontations with the umpire in the closing stages. The Scot grew increasingly annoyed by the length of time Nadal was taking between points when serving. Nadal was regularly taking more than the permitted 25 seconds but was warned only once by the umpire, Damien Dumusois, on match point in the final game.
In the final set Murray got into some animated exchanges with Dumusois as his annoyance boiled over at what he considered favourable treatment for his opponent. At one stage the umpire accused Murray of having “zero respect for what I do”.
If Murray was disappointed by his failure to build on his superb display in the first set, the 28-year-old Scot will have every reason to feel in a positive frame of mind after his first tournament of the clay-court season. Murray needed to find some form after his recent disappointments in Indian Wells and Miami and gave every indication that his clay-court breakthrough last year will be no one-season wonder. Murray, who won the first clay-court titles of his career last year, proved again that he can be a match for anybody on a surface that used to cause him so many problems.
Although this was Murray’s third successive loss to Nadal in his three appearances in the Monte Carlo semi-finals, the world No 2 is a much more accomplished player on clay than he was in 2009 and 2011. Not only does he move more fluently across the court than he used to but he has also worked out the fine balance between attack and defence that is so crucial to success on clay.
Arguably no player in the history of the sport has played better on this surface than Nadal, who was appearing in his 11th Monte Carlo semi-final in the last 12 years. The 29-year-old Spaniard has won the title on the Cote d’Azur on eight occasions, though the last time he did so was in 2012. He had not dropped a set this week until the semi-finals and is starting to look again like the player he used to be.
Until last year Murray had lost all six of his meetings with Nadal on clay, but in their previous meeting on the Spaniard’s favourite surface the Scot had won the final of the Madrid Masters, which had followed his maiden tournament victory on clay in Munich.
Murray, whose brother Jamie will play in Sunday’s doubles final, had taken his time to adapt to clay this year, having been taken to three sets by Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Benoit Paire in his opening two matches, but his crushing victory over Milos Raonic in the quarter-finals demonstrated that he was quickly rediscovering his touch.
Nadal can destroy opponents with his huge forehand, but for the best part of two sets Murray restricted the Spaniard’s attacking possibilities. When he could, Murray targeted Nadal’s backhand; when he had little option but to go down the other flank, the Scot tried to keep Nadal as far back in the court as possible.
On another beautiful day of unbroken sunshine, the two men played a match to remember. There were some stunning rallies, with both players combining stonewall defence with thrilling attack. If they were not striking the ball with great power they were showing great subtlety with their drop shots and clever approaches to the net.
Murray made a fine start, quickly finding his rhythm on his ground strokes. The Scot made his first break of serve in the sixth game, Nadal hitting a forehand long on break point. Nadal had two chances to break in the next game, but Murray held firm with an ace and a smart forehand to lead 5-2.
When Nadal served to stay in the first set Murray turned up the pressure. A wonderful drop shot, played from the baseline, took him to set point, which he converted immediately as Nadal netted a forehand following the Scot’s bold return of serve.
Nadal, however, is the ultimate competitor and the Spaniard came out fighting at the start of the second set, breaking serve in the opening game with a backhand cross-court winner. It was Murray’s turn to respond immediately, breaking back for 1-1, but in the seventh game Nadal broke again in spectacular style, cracking a forehand winner down the line off a smash. He was helped, nevertheless, by a dip in Murray’s serving as the Scot struggled to put his first serves in court.
Although he went 15-40 down when he served at 4-3, Nadal clung on, saving break points with a smash and then some fine hitting in a well-constructed rally. The world No 5 proceeded to serve out to love to win the set and take the contest into a decider.
With the bit between his teeth, Nadal immediately took charge of the third set, breaking serve in the opening game with two splendid drop shot winners. At 1-3 down Murray was broken to love, by which time the Scot’s frustrations with the umpiring were evident.
Nadal eventually served out for victory after two hours and 43 minutes. Murray, who appeared to hurt his groin in the final game, saved four match points but was outrallied on the fifth. Nadal’s leap into the air showed how much the victory meant to him.
In Sunday’s final Nadal will meet Gael Monfils, who beat his fellow Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-1, 6-3. Nadal will be seeking the 68th title of his career and his 28th at Masters Series level.
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