Nadal wins battle of wills over Murray in Monte Carlo semis
Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray fought another epic three-hour semi-final at the Monte Carlo Masters
Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer: friends, compatriots and clearly determined to make the Monte Carlo Masters final an all-Spanish affair.
Nadal may have spent time practising with Andy Murray at the start of the week, but the semi-final of a Masters is no time to be exchanging pleasantries with the man across the net.
So there were Nadal and Ferrer, enjoying a relaxed, lightweight knock-up together on the morning they would each take on two men from altogether cooler climes.
Ferrer, a first-time semi-finalist at the Australian Open earlier this year, has recently climbed to a 30-month high of No6 in the rankings.
He is on an 8-0 win rate this season on clay -and won the Acapulco title -and lost just 12 games and no sets to reach the semis.
Ferrer was first up against Jurgen Melzer, who must really have fancied his own chances. Although the Austrian was in his first Masters semi-final, he too is enjoyed a personal high in the rankings at No9 -up to No8 next week.
And he had more good reasons to be confident. In the last 12 months, he had beaten Ferrer in both their meetings, including a straight sets win at Roland Garros. He had also beaten Novak Djokovic at the French Open and Nadal in Shanghai.
He had won his home tournament in Vienna and been named Austrian sportsman of 2010. But best of all, he was the shock winner, for the first time, over Roger Federer in this week’s quarter-finals.
Ferrer got off to a slow start. Melzer threatened the Spaniard’s opening service game and broke his second. At 1-3, Ferrer headed to another deuce but this time he produced a string of ripping backhands to hold and, with his rhythm and confidence in place, he seized control and reeled off the set 6-3.
Melzer came back with some aggressive tennis but Ferrer was hitting wide and deep, finding the lines, and moving Melzer like a yo-yo. Ferrer broke to love in the fifth game, and never looked back.
It was a near error-free master-class, mixing up precision ground strokes, drop shots and passes as clean as a whistle.
Melzer had one tiny window of opportunity with a break point at 2-5, but it was soon slammed shut, and a beaming Ferrer took the match, 6-2, in just an hour and a quarter.
It was, though, the second match of the day that had the taste buds watering: Nadal against an Andy Murray at last shaking off the demons of three first-found losses in as many tournaments.
In Monte Carlo, he had not dropped a set on his way to the semis and was looking and sounding relaxed and confident. His many fans, though, were rather less relaxed when the match was delayed by an injury problem before it had begun.
In training, Murray found himself unable to serve and needed a cortisone injection and local anaesthetic in his right elbow before play could get under way, 20 minutes late.
It was not the most auspicious of signs against a six-time Monte Carlo champion on a 35 win streak in the tournament.
However, Murray burst from the gates in the opening game to take a 15-40 lead on Nadal’s serve, and fears of a walkover were quickly allayed. Nadal held, but the gruelling pattern of the match was set and the Spaniard forced a break from Murray to go 2-0 with the match already 10 minutes old.
Four games in and the clock stood at 25 minutes, with neither player giving an inch. Games came only from the best of shotmaking, tactics and pace. Despite falling 1-4 behind, Murray continued to attack and began to use his big double-handed backhand -much as Ferrer had -across the full width of the court for some great winners.
Murray’s reward was a break back to draw level at 4-4 but, as is so often the case with Nadal, the champion held serve and found his greatest intensity to break Murray for the set, 6-4.
The serve stats showed the difference: 70 per cent for Nadal, just 48 for Murray. But the time on the clock also told a story: one hour 10 minutes. This was close.
The second set started where the first left off, with both men stretching the other to the extreme margins, but Murray started to use a few extra strategies -more drop shots, angled volleys, and attacks deep to the Nadal backhand -and Nadal began to miss a few lines.
Murray broke but was then pushed hard on serve in a fourth game of 18 minutes and eight deuces. Finally, Murray consolidated a 3-1 lead with the set already at 45 minutes.
The fifth game also went to deuce and Murray, in yet another marathon game of 10 minutes, held.
The momentum was now marginally with the Scot and the crowds -who had jeered his brilliant drop shots against the injured Simon in the third round -now chanted Murray’s name in their enthusiasm for his expansive and varied shot-making and stamina.
He broke Nadal again to lead 5-2 and, after an hour and 11 minutes, closed out the set, 6-2, with a deft drop shot. Nadal had managed only three winners to Murray’s 13 and looked the more pressured of the two. But that was about to change.
All square after two and a half hours of pulsating competition, Nadal won his opening serve and looked across at his opponent. What he saw was a Murray holding his elbow and calling for the trainer.
The cogwheels in the Spaniard’s brain went, almost visibly, into overdrive as he assessed the Murray body language, which got considerably worse when he was prevented from receiving treatment until the standard change of ends.
By then, a burgeoning Nadal had broken Murray to lead 3-0. Nadal broke again and, although Murray pulled one game back, Nadal served out the match 6-1.
For two sets and more than two hours, Murray held his own against the best clay-court player in the world. Had he not suffered from an elbow injury, he may well have gone on to take a famous victory.
But has he also tactically managed his injury better -perhaps got treatment after taking the second set to allow Nadal time to ponder his 6-2 loss -maybe the psychological advantage would not have swung so firmly towards the Spaniard.
However, Murray now knows that -injury aside -he has a game capable of beating the very best on what is the Scot’s worst surface, and that must surely boost his confidence as he heads into two Masters and a Grand Slam on the red stuff.