Monday 24 July 2017

Tennis: Crushed Nadal salutes Murray

Neil Harman in Melbourne

Unbelievable. Rafael Nadal repeated the word for good measure.

Unbelievable. Not because the Spaniard stopped a match in midstream, which is as unlikely as anything you will see on a tennis court, but his description of the levels attained by Andy Murray at Rod Laver Arena yesterday.

Two more performances such as this and a bit of Grand Slam stardust will surely be sprinkled on the Scot, who will play Marin Cilic in the Australian Open semi-finals tomorrow.

Nadal quit on his stool, a boxing analogy made all the more relevant in that Ricky Hatton had flown from Hong Kong to watch a man who proved that his hands are every bit as swift and destructive as The Hitman's own once were.

Nadal does not do quitting. In Rotterdam last February, with both knees burning, he played through the final against Murray, losing the last set 6-0 and refusing to discuss his ailment lest it should be considered an excuse.

It was the same yesterday, a tweak to the Spaniard's right knee at the end of the second set exacerbated by the state of the match, with Murray about to take decisive command. Only this time the choice was made to shake on it.

"I felt a similar thing to what I had last year," Nadal said of the injury that forced him out of the defence of his Wimbledon title and off the ATP Tour for more than two months.

"Andy played really well. I think my level was very high today, too. I had big chances to win both sets, and I think against probably the player who is playing the best right now, I was very close."

To see the back of Nadal is a blow for any tournament and a blessing for the opposition.

Murray would have preferred to complete the job in time-honoured fashion, but a 6-3, 7-6, 3-0 retired scoreline is as definitive as if all the loose ends had been tied up.

As a preparation for the meeting with Cilic, it could not have been sweeter. Murray played magnificent tennis, especially when he faced Nadal at the heights of the intensity he brought to a match that he said had so much riding on it.

Murray knew it, too. Although the Spaniard's form against the best has suffered of late, he does not give up a title without expending the last vestige of effort, and the opening exchanges were extreme in the physical and the tactical sense.

Nadal broke first with a brutal backhand winner after a forehand had opened up Murray. The British No 1 responded in kind with a backhand lob on the third of his break points in the subsequent game.

He saved three break points in the next game, twice volleying behind the serve, a tactic that was to bring rich dividends.

A further break in the sixth game secured a foothold that needed to be underpinned by saving three break points in the ninth game.

The match did not need additional fireworks, but this was Australia Day and fireworks here are a ritual. Incomprehensibly, the match was halted for a quarter of an hour after five games of the second set so the sky could be lit up. Murray said that he felt his body stiffen. He dropped serve.

It might have been a match-turner, but Nadal was unusually hesitant, tossing in a double fault and scuffing a backhand to give Murray two points to break. He needed just one, thanks to a devastating backhand cross-court winner.

"It was just quite strange," Murray said. "You can't imagine in a football World Cup quarter-final or something of that kind, stopping in the 60th minute when they say, 'There's a few fireworks, just hang on'.

"Your body gets used to the match. We're conditioned to play four hours or so, but if you take a break for 10 minutes on these courts, your body starts to tighten up."

Murray, though, was not fazed. He might have been in a position to serve out for the second set had Nadal not roused himself to avert a further four break chances in the 11th game, but it was during one of the outstanding exchanges that marked the game that the Spaniard felt something tweak in his right knee.

Breezed

Murray breezed the tie-break 7-2 -- as secure as Fort Knox under the high ball and as eager as a dingo to devour anything short.

After six points of the third set, Nadal raised an arm to stop play and called for the trainer, who kneaded his fingers into the muscles around the knee.

Only 12 more points were played, four of which were aces from Murray, before Nadal gestured again, this time to shake hands. The players hugged at the net.

A brilliant match had been brought to a sad stop; sad, that is, unless you like your victories in tennis to be Murray ones.

Cilic, meanwhile, became the first Croatian to reach the semi-finals by wearing down seventh seed Andy Roddick 7-6 6-3 3-6 2-6 6-3. Cilic, the 14th seed, was close to exhaustion at the end after spending more than 18 hours on court to get this far -- this was his third five-setter of the tournament.

Justine Henin's dream of winning the women's championship also edged closer to reality.

The Belgian, back after an 18-month retirement, booked her place in the last four with a 7-6 7-5 win over Russia's Nadia Petrova to set up a showdown with Zheng Jie of China, who defeated Russia's Maria Kirilenko 6-1 6-3. (© The Times, London)

Irish Independent

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