Today is Rafael Nadal’s birthday, and the top-seeded Spaniard sporting a tourniquet-tight headband brought unrelenting pressure to the party. Unleashing his uppercut forehand, Nadal tamed a feisty Andy Murray and tempestuous wind in reaching his sixth Roland Garros final.
In a punishing semifinal featuring physical rallies and remarkable retrievals, Nadal ground down the stubborn Scot, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, celebrating his 25th birthday in style while continuing his quest of another coronation. The world No. 1 was born 30 years and three days after Bjorn Borg and now stands one win from equaling the Angelic Assassin’s record of six Roland Garros titles.
The 3 hour, 17-minute match was more complicated than the scoreline suggests.
The first set seemed a foregone conclusion when Nadal built a 5-1 lead. But serving for the set at 5-2 with new balls, control suddenly spun away. Three straight errors gave Murray the break and he consolidated for 4-5.
Serving for the set again, Nadal earned double set point but could not close, as Murray won a riveting rally to draw even at deuce. Nadal erased two break points—the first with a heavy topspin forehand that bounced shoulder high, and the second with a surprise serve-and-volley winner. Pushed into pursuit, Murray netted a running forehand as Nadal sealed the 62-minute first set. The 6’ 3” Murray owns one of tennis’ top two-handed backhands and the height to stand up to Nadal’s high-bouncing, topspin, cross-court forehand. But on pivotal points, Nadal sometimes caught Murray leaning to his left and fired his forehand up the line to finish points.
Serving was never a strength today, and the pair produced four straight service breaks midway through the second set. Pouncing from a low crouch, Nadal, who is closing the baseline better than he did in the early rounds, ripped an inside-out forehand winner to break for 6-5. Murray netted a forehand to fall into a two-set hole.
Battling back from a two-set deficit against Nadal is a task as tough as sweeping Court Chatrier with a tooth brush: Nadal has lost a two-set lead only once in his career and was in no mood to give it up today. The five-time champ broke to open the third set and staved off six break points to make it stand up. Singeing the sideline with an inside-out forehand, Nadal earned triple match point. Murray pushed a running forehand into net and Rafa dropped to his knees and thrust his arms toward the sky in an eruption of emotion.
Spare a thought for Murray, who played with a partially torn tendon in his right ankle but competed with grit, fighting from early holes in the first and second sets and showing much more tenacity than he did in his meek Australian Open final loss to Novak Djokovic in January.
Nadal awaits the winner of the Novak Djokovic-Roger Federer semifinal, an encounter he summed up as “the best player in the world today against the best player of all time.” Nadal is 44-1 at the French Open, 16-8 vs. Federer and 16-11 vs. Djokovic, though he’s lost his last four matches to the undefeated Serbian, including clay-court finals in Madrid and Rome.