LONDON // Rafael Nadal gave Andy Murray an apologetic embrace across the Centre Court net last night after ruthlessly demonstrating the crucial differences between a genuine tennis great and a player aspiring to become one. Murray has been knocking on the door of greatness for the past couple of years, losing two grand slam finals to Roger Federer, and many of his admirers were convinced that the home soil of Wimbledon would finally provide the stage for his big breakthrough.
Those hopes soared considerably when Federer was eliminated by Tomas Berdych in a quarter-final shock on Wednesday. But the massive expectations of an elusive British triumph in the sport's main event since 1938 were extinguished by the brilliance of Nadal. Under pressure in all three sets, Nadal won them by raising his game when it mattered most, securing a 6-4, 7-6, 6-4 victory and a final date tomorrow with Berdych, who overcame Novak Djokovic in the other semi-final.
A tight opening set had been decided by a sloppy ninth game by the otherwise rock-solid Murray. The Scot held a set point in the second-set tie-break before losing it 8-6 and was a break up and on the verge of a comeback in the third before Nadal went into overdrive and rattled off the last four games in devastating fashion. "This is a very important day for me," said Nadal, the world No 1, knowing how significant it could have been if he lad lost to one of his main rankings challengers.
"Andy played very well today so I knew I had to be at my best to beat him. I knew it was going to be a tough match, and it was. It was decided by the smallest of margins. Andy had his chances and if he had taken them it could so easily have been different." Murray concurred. "Yes, I had my chances," the fourth seed said. "And I am very disappointed that I didn't take them. I am upset and annoyed with myself because I desperately wanted to make it through to my first final here.
"But in the end I reckon it all came down to about five or six key points and he just played them better than me. But that's Rafa. He's my favourite player to watch and I always enjoy playing against him." Describing his latest heartbreak as enjoyable was perhaps stretching a point, but Murray, beaten for the eighth time in 11 meetings with Nadal, was a much bigger threat to the Spaniard yesterday than when they last met here.
In the 2008 quarter-finals, Nadal brutally thrashed the Scotsman for the concession of only nine games. Nadal went on to depose Federer as champion then and is on the brink of doing the same this year after failing to defend his title 12 months ago because of knee problems. Murray certainly expects a second Wimbledon success and an eighth grand slam title to come Nadal's way, despite the sterling efforts of Berdych in these championships.
"Berdych is a great player and if he performs as well as he has done in his last couple of matches, then he will be tough to beat," Murray said. "But Rafa is the favourite. He is the best player in the world and he's not lost here for a long time." The last time Nadal lost was to Federer in the 2007 final. The only concern for Nadal - as he prepares to watch his country's World Cup quarter-final against Paraguay tonight before facing his own day of destiny - are the suspect knees which kept him off court for so much of last year.
"I have not had any problems in my last three matches but the pain I felt in my second and third matches is not forgotten," he said. "It can be there one minute and gone the next. I don't have control of this." firstname.lastname@example.org