A comprehensive display of sweeping power tennis by Rafael Nadal has ended Andy Murray's dreams at Wimbledon's semi-final stage for the third successive year. The Spaniard, playing with his injured foot frozen against the pain, ran out a 5-7 6-2 6-2 6-4 winner.
Murray started promisingly enough against the cryogenically challenged Spaniard, holding serve with aplomb and strafing groundshots like gunfire into an uncharacteristically weak Spanish backhand.
In a soaring first set of rocket groundshots, the Scot and his Spanish pal were seeing the ball like a melon and squeezing the pips out of every single rally. Time and again, expansive, meaty hitting from Murray's forehand found depth, width, and even the lap of a lady on row C, via Nadal's frame.
With mirror groundshots resonating in the South London air like rifle cracks, the pair rode their version of contemporary powerhouse tennis to 5-6, when they played a pivotal game on the Spaniard's serve. Read more (257 words)
Nadal, who will be the new world number two on Monday morning, looked like a man facing the firing squad as Murray fired hard, heavy balls into the vulnerable Spanish backhand. At 15-40, he went back to that well and 15,000 fans erupted as the Scot claimed the first set 7-5.
With the momentum on Murray's racket and Nadal seemingly rattled, the British number one missed a first-rate chance to press home his advantage. With Nadal serving at 1-2, 15-30, the home hope contrived to fire a mid-court forehand long, and the Murray bubble had burst.
The Scot double-faulted in the following game and, when he miscued a smash to lag 3-2 behind and served up another careless service game, the set was all but over.
In set three, as Nadal continued to impose his brand of sweeping, pendulous tennis on Murray's mind and body, observers pondered the extent of his injury. So bestial was the Spaniard's game, you wondered if a full set of leg calipers could have arrested his progress towards a 13th grand-slam final.
As Nadal's serve got bigger, his groundshots wider and deeper, and his volleys smarter, it seemed the only cup Murray might be in contention for was the World Gurning Championships. His mouth frequently wide open in a frantic oblong rage, Murray overplayed on almost every key point, desperate to wrest the initiative from the world number one.
But for every scorching forehand creamed into Nadal's now fully functioning backhand, another bullet would bite the dust an inch beyond the white lines. Tennis is a game of fine margins and the ability to find the spattered paint that flecks beyond the groundsman's manicured laser lines is the territory of champions. Nadal's world is one of millimetres; Murray's merely one of inches.
The Scot played the third set like a man grappling for the inspirational strike that might spark a revival, in the style of the down-the-line backhand flick that ultimately felled Gasquet three summers ago.
But Nadal is not Gasquet. He's a rampant, androidal beast of a player who, by the start of the fourth set had made just seven unforced errors to Murray's 33. Although the world number four laced the occasional searing groundshot past the Spaniard, the fourth set looked predictable enough from the moment Nadal broke in the very first game.
When the top seed pulled one wide into the tramlines when serving at 2-1 30-0, you half expected him to produce a doctor's note. Then, as Murray failed to convert his two break points in this ten-minute mini-epic game, fans wrestled with a familiar feeling of grim inevitability.
As booming Nadal groundshot after groundshot fizzed off the turf and Murray chased hither and thither and beyond, the match moved procession-like to 5-4 40-15, when another screaming Spanish forehand into the corner sealed the deal.
This tournament has shown that Murray is getting better, both physically and mentally. Unfortunately, so is Nadal. And, as British tennis moves inevitably towards its 77th year without a grand-slam champion, the nation will once more forget about tennis for 50 weeks, while Wimbledon's Fred Perry statue will continue to cast his stony, disapproving stare in the direction of the Pimm's marquees.