The King of Clay’s comeback is on hold, for now.
Only victory on Sunday will keep Murray ranked No.2 in the world, and the way he is going about his business on this surface you would not bet against him retaining his title, or — whisper it — pulling off something special in Roland Garros.
It is supposed to be his weakest surface, but Murray is no slouch on clay — he has three French Open semifinals to his name, losing twice to Nadal in his prime and last year to Djokovic in five sets.
This was only his second win over Nadal on clay, both on this court, having stunned Nadal in last year’s Madrid final.
Here Murray emphatically ended the Spaniard’s 13-match winning streak, a mini-revival on the surface where Nadal has claimed nine of his 14 majors, and 49 titles overall including back-to-back triumphs in Monte Carlo and Barcelona last month.
“You have to do a lot of things well [to beat Nadal],” Murray told Sky Sports. “I used the forehand pretty good, I was able to push him back behind the baseline.
“I didn’t make so many mistakes on the returns, I was able to make him worker harder in his service games. Against Rafa, he doesn’t serve as hard as everyone else but he puts a lot of pressure on returns.”
When they faced each other in Monte Carlo recently, Murray spectacularly self-destructed to lose from a set up. Murray wilted in the heat that afternoon, becoming agitated by some of the umpire’s calls and some of Nadal’s actions, the Spaniard plugging away to grind out the victory.
This time the Scot was calmness personified; Nadal was mentally overwhelmed.
“The beginning of the second set in Monte Carlo, he came out having lost the first and really raised his intensity, and I didn’t,” said Murray. “Today, in that first game at the beginning of the second [set], he raised his intensity, had a few break point chances, but I felt I raised my level as well. It’s easy to drop your intensity a little bit after winning a tight first set. I managed to stay on top, that was important.”
Murray was on top without his first serve even firing on all cylinders, as it did in his clinical 6-3, 6-2 dismantling of Tomas Berdych, when he won 92 percent of points on his first serve.
That number dipped to 69 percent here. It was wildly inconsistent, but when he needed his first serve most, it showed up on cue. He put the improvement down to working with his brother Jamie Murray‘s coach, Louis Cayer, as well as studying lots of video.
“I spoke to a number of coaches about it, coaches that work with younger players that develop technique,” said Murray. “Just to understand different grips, different positions standing on the court, the ideal spot to make contact with the serve.
“Sometimes you can get into bad habits over the years. When you become a pro you don’t do as much technical work. It’s more tactical, more physical, but technical can be just as important as well.”
Nadal is not often outlasted in a clay-court rally but a composed Murray waited patiently to pick his opening here, breaking Nadal twice in each set.
It is always hard to maintain such a level against Nadal, who found a way to stick close to Murray despite being stifled, and broke back in each set to rouse the Caja Magica.
But every time Nadal started to build momentum, Murray shut him down and silenced the crowd with huge service holds and break-point saves to keep his nose in front.
Even when Murray’s second-set lead was trimmed back to 5-4 with Nadal looking determined to force a decider, Murray did not dip emotionally. He strung together some terrific defence to bring up two match points on his opponent’s serve and took the first to book his place in the final.