French Open 2011: Murray’s record run halted by Nadal
Murray faced the most formidable of tasks in his first French Open semi-final - Nadal had lost only once here
The top four men in the world had much to fight for as they spread their wares before a grateful Roland Garros crowd.
No surprise, then, that rumours had tickets for semifinal day changing hands for €1,000 apiece.
It was hot and bright, and the wind was high once again. The gusty conditions were proving such a big challenge that the top dressing on Philipp Chatrier was given an extra helping of clay and water just half an hour before play got under way.
First up were Rafael Nadal, celebrating his 25th birthday, and Andy Murray, 24 a fortnight ago during the Rome Masters.
So what was at stake?
Nadal was aiming to emulate Bjorn Borg’s record six French titles. Nadal also knew that his No1 ranking was on the line. He needed at the very least to win the French title to keep the top spot and that was not just a pride issue: the Wimbledon seedings in two weeks’ time will be based on the men’s rankings.
Murray had the unenviable task of trying to beat Nadal at Roland Garros for only the second time in 44 matches: Robin Soderling overcame a Nadal suffering with tendonitis in the fourth round in 2009.
Considering that Murray is not at ease on clay and has no titles on the red stuff, he had nevertheless achieved much this year. He was only the second Briton in the Open era to reach the French semis -Tim Henman managed it in 2004 -and no Briton had reached the final since Henry Ã¢â‚¬ËœBunny’ Austin in 1937.
And while the task facing Murray might have seemed insurmountable last year -Nadal did not lose a set in taking the French title in 2010 to become the first man to complete the “clay slam” -this year, Nadal was showing some signs of vulnerability.
The Spaniard had lost the two clay Masters finals in Madrid and Rome and then he struggled, for the first time in his Paris resume, through a five-set first round match in Paris against John Isner.
Quite simply, he lacked his usual sparkle, his tennis dampened, it seemed, by the fast conditions and hard flying balls. He had, in fact, already spent 14 hours on his French campaign, the most of all the semifinalists.
Sadly for Murray, however, the Nadal hours spent between matches working on his shots were, by his quarterfinal straight-sets demolition of Soderling, reaping their rewards. It was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Nadal who faced Murray in the 30 degree afternoon heat.
The Scot held his opening service game but then, despite playing good, aggressive tennis, lost the next five on the bounce.
While the Murray serve percentage was in the high 70s, his inability to convert break point chances set the tone for the match.
In a 12-minute fourth game, he brought up three with some great variety of shots but Nadal’s forehand -and a stunning smash to pick off a Murray lob -saw the Spaniard through.
Murray continued to play calm, attacking tennis and seemed to be moving well in both offence and defence despite his less-than-perfect ankle.
But Nadal was already finding his sharpest form of the tournament, reaching everything and hitting the forehand -particularly the cross-court angled version -with huge pace and depth.
A hold of serve took Murray to 2-5 and he then benefitted from a pair of wayward Nadal backhands. Murray astutely continued to pummel the backhand wing and eventually won a break back. With a strong hold of serve courtesy of some nice drops shots and backhands, he pulled back to 4-5.
Murray defied the gusting wind to fend off two set points and gained two more chances to break.
The second of them was saved by the most delicate of angled volleys from Nadal and the set, so nearly turned around, was lost: 6-4. There may have been few points to separate the men -just four -but Nadal converted two of his three break points, Murray only one from six.
Murray was not disheartened, though, and carried his surge into the second set to reach 15-40 on Nadal’s opening serve with some resilient and accurate ground strokes.
But he fell victim -the only way to describe the vagaries of the blustering wind -to two successive shots lifted by a gust that left Murray floundering. A near-ace from Nadal held his game.
Murray countered with the first love game of the match but, inexplicably, he lost his intensity in the fifth game. Nadal took him to 0-40, converting the second break point with a massive forehand. Even more inexplicably, Nadal returned the favour in the next game, producing a first double fault and with it the break.
They exchanged breaks once again, both standing in on each other’s serve, both fighting the wind and the red dust on their toss-up and delivery. Finally, it was the Scot who held to lead 5-4 and he let out a roar of encouragement.
But no sooner had the danger light come on than Nadal found his magical best in some points of cat-and-mouse that showed all his touch as well as a searing forehand that was becoming stronger with each game.
Not only did he hold but he then applied the pressure through a sequence of deuces on Murray’s serve, finding the side lines with belligerent angled off-forehands. His blood was up and a fist pump accompanied the break: Nadal served out to love, 7-5.
The Murray attitude -so positive up to this point -started to waver as he began to berate his box. He had Nadal under pressure but, just as he had done at the start of the final set against Nadal in Monte Carlo, he showed his negative side.
The Spaniard used his own confidence to break Murray straight away and made a strong hold. Murray had a break chance in the fourth game but twice dropped a return of serve into the net for Nadal to lead 3-1.
It was a similar story in the sixth game -Murray weaving two excellent break point chances but Nadal extinguishing them with a big serve and a great overhead smash, 4-2.
With three hours on the clock, Murray yet again worked a break point for the third Nadal game in a row and this time, Nadal fended it off with a rare drop-shot winner and then swatted away two more chances.
And so Nadal, having fended off six break points in the set, stepped up to serve out to love, 6-4.
It was a hugely impressive performance by Nadal but also by Murray. The Scot played one of his most consistently aggressive matches of the year -very like the one that nearly beat Djokovic in Rome -but Nadal chose this day, his birthday, to produce his best of the tournament.
Nadal could then do no more. His fate -the French title and his No1 ranking -had to await the match that followed between the men he called “the best in the world this year and the best of all time”: Djokovic and Roger Federer.
It was to be the match not only of the tournament but possibly of the entire year.