Brilliant Nadal fights back to extinguish Murray's hopes

Briton takes first set to sting Spaniard into action. Djokovic awaits in tomorrow's final

Paul Newman
Saturday 02 July 2011 00:00

The wait goes on. Andy Murray lit a flame of hope inside British hearts of a first home champion for 75 years here yesterday only to have it blown out by a Spanish whirlwind.

Murray lost in the semi-finals for the third year in succession and for the third time in the past four years to Rafael Nadal after his apparent grip on the match was torn from his hands.

Having failed to take a set off Nadal in their two previous encounters here, Murray took charge by winning the first set, only to miss an easy forehand at a crucial stage early in the second set that prompted a swing of momentum that he was never able to reverse. Nadal went on to win 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 and extend his winning run on these courts to 20 matches. In tomorrow's final he faces Novak Djokovic, a four-sets winner over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

When Murray looks back on this defeat it will be hard not to dwell on the point that changed the course of the match. With Nadal making uncharacteristic mistakes on his backhand and Murray going for his shots, the 24-year-old Scot had taken the first set and was 15-30 up on the Spaniard's serve in the third game of the second when he created a glorious opportunity to force two break points. After hitting a big return of serve, which Nadal was barely able to pick up, Murray hammered what should have been a routine forehand winner beyond the baseline.

The miss clearly played on Murray's mind. Having adopted an attacking strategy that had paid off in the first set, the Scot suddenly started missing, while a visibly encouraged Nadal cut out his own errors and started putting more zip into his shots.

A double fault and a horrible missed smash, following some stunning defence by Nadal, handed the Spaniard his first break of serve and a lame backhand into the net gave him the second two games later. By the time the defending champion had served out to level the contest at one set apiece he had won 18 of the next 23 points after Murray's missed forehand.

"It was a big point," Murray admitted afterwards. "I was playing very high-risk tennis for most of the match. I went for it today and I started to make a few mistakes after that, but you can't talk about a match that goes almost three hours being decided on one point.

"Against Rafa you have to go for big shots. I slightly overhit that one. But [people who criticise me] would be the same ones who would have said a year ago that I would have been playing too defensively. Today I was going for all my shots, and I started to make some mistakes afterwards.

"When I've beaten Rafa in the past – I've beaten him at the US Open and the Australian Open – I played a little bit more patiently. Maybe I got the balance a little bit wrong today, but you need to try and find a way. Each time you play against one of the best players you need to play slightly differently each time, because they're going to change their game against you. You have to make adjustments."

If Nadal looked below-par in the first set, he was back to his imperious best by the end. The Spaniard is the best defender in the game, retrieving balls that others would have long given up on, and nobody turns defence into attack more effectively.

There were numerous occasions when Murray seemed to have the point won, only for Nadal to keep the rally alive and then hit scorching winners. The unforced error count told its own story: having made four errors in the first set, Nadal made just three in the last three, an extraordinary statistic considering the level of tennis. If Murray's level of play dropped, it was only under enormous pressure from his opponent.

The Scot and his supporters, nevertheless, are left to reflect on a continuing story of British disappointment at the world's greatest tennis tournament. Since Bunny Austin reached the final in 1938, when he lost to Don Budge, his fellow countrymen have reached the semi-finals 11 times without ever clearing the final hurdle. Murray's third loss in the semi-finals goes alongside four by Tim Henman, three by Roger Taylor and one by Mike Sangster.

Henman and Murray are the only men in the Open era of any nationality who have lost their first three semi-finals at the All England Club, while Fred Perry, the 1936 winner, remains the only British man to have won since the Challenge Round – which required the champion to play only one match in defence of his title – was abolished in 1922.

Murray is too fine a player not to have other chances to win here or at other Grand Slam tournaments, having lost in his three appearances in major finals, but he is competing in an era dominated by some of the best players the game has ever known. "It's tough," he said as he reflected on his defeat. "I'm giving it my best shot each time. I'm trying my hardest. That's all you can do."

The first set could hardly have gone better for the world No 4. In the opening game the Scot put all five of his first serves into court, hit two aces and demonstrated his confidence by playing serve-and-volley on only the second point of the match. He did not have to save any break points in the first set. At 5-6 Nadal made three successive errors to go 0-40 down before putting a backhand in the net on the second set point.

Concerned by the hip flexor muscle which he had tweaked in his previous match, Murray had called for the trainer as early as the third game. There were times when his movement looked impaired, though he insisted afterwards that the injury had not been a factor once he had taken some painkillers. Nadal, meanwhile, did not appear troubled by the foot injury he had suffered earlier in the tournament.

The Spaniard took a toilet break at the end of the 54-minute first set, perhaps hoping he might disrupt Murray's rhythm, but it was the Scot's forehand blunder in the third game of the second set that prompted what proved to be an irreversible change in fortunes.

When Nadal held serve to go 2-0 up in the third set he had won seven games in succession. Murray finally stopped the rot, but at 2-4 he was broken once again. The fourth set started in similar fashion as Murray's serve was immediately broken, a fifth break in a run of seven service games by the Scot.

At 3-5 Murray saved a match point with an ace, but Nadal was not to be denied. In the following game the Scot saved a second match point with a volley but at the third time of asking Nadal hit a forehand winner to take the match.

Asked how he would respond to the defeat in the coming days and weeks, Murray said: "I'll work harder than I ever did before. I'll try and improve my game and get stronger, be more professional, try and learn from what happened today, think about the things that I need to improve.

"That's all you can do. You've just got to work harder than you have done in the past to get better. It's a very tough era in tennis. Tennis right at the top of the game is exceptional. To get level with those guys and to push past them you need to work harder than them. That's what I need to try to do."

Semi-detached: Murray's last-four slam failures

*Murray's loss yesterday was the fourth time he has tasted defeat in seven Grand Slam semi-finals.

Wimbledon 2009 v Andy Roddick, lost 6-4, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6

A masterclass from the American put paid to the Scot's hopes, Roddick edging a tight four-setter.

Wimbledon 2010 v Rafael Nadal, lost 6-4, 7-6, 6-4

Murray was stopped in his tracks by a blistering display from Nadal, who made the final in three straight sets.

French Open 2011 v Nadal, lost 6-4, 7-5, 6-4

The Spaniard returned to haunt Murray at Roland Garros, with Nadal going on to beat Roger Federer in the final.

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