NEW YORK—Andy Murray had Rafael Nadal right where he wanted him—well off the court and lunging for the ball, like a harried commuter trying to leap onto the 7 train before the subway doors slammed shut.
Stabbing a one-handed stretch backhand from outside the doubles alley, Nadal spun, sprinted to his left than launched a laser forehand winner down the line. That shot symbolized this U.S. Open semifinal: even when the Spaniard ran out of court, he often conjured stirring shotmaking to stay one step ahead of Murray.
Whipping vicious topspin forehands into the corners, Nadal stormed into his second straight U.S. Open final with a 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 conquest that spanned three hours and 24 minutes. The defending champion scored his 13th consecutive Flushing Meadows win in setting up a rematch of the 2010 final with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
The raucous crowd that watched Djokovic deny two match points in fighting past Roger Federer in the semi that started the day seemed emotionally spent as the second semifinal began. Nadal had no trouble focusing, ripping a running forehand to break for 4-3 and consolidating at love for 5-3 before sealing the set in 49 minutes.
Murray’s anxiety level spiked in the second game of the second set as he earned three break points, but failed to convert. Murray misfired on his favored backhand on two of the three break points but connected cleanly in bashing his orange racquet against the bottom of his black Barricades, cracking his Head frame in the process as Nadal held for 1-all.
Snarling scathing admonishments and smacking his racquet face repeatedly, Murray’s body language screamed stressed out and Nadal wisely worked him over, allowing the Scot to stew in frustration. When Murray pushed a forehand volley long, Nadal had the break and a 3-2 second-set lead, solidifying his advantage with a second straight break for 5-2.
Murray displays a dry sense of humor off court but can behave like a buzz kill on it; his cranky disposition prevents fans from fully engaging with a player who can produce periods of electrifying tennis—as he did in snapping off a snazzy, sharp-angled backhand smash holding for 3-2 in the third—then sink into whiny walkabouts. To his credit, Murray wasn’t throwing a pity party after falling into a two-set deficit. Instead, he began to step into the court and play with more aggression as a cautious Nadal began to play conservative shots down the middle. Winning a pulsating 28-shot slugfest to break for 2-0, Murray broke again for 5-3, eventually earning the third set with the only breaks he managed all match.
Ultimately, Nadal’s poise on pivotal points (he converted six of 18 break points, compared to two of 10 for Murray) and the fact he played a cleaner match (Nadal committed 23 unforced errors, while Murray made 55) were key components in his third straight Grand Slam semifinal win over Murray. Next up is Djokovic, who owns a gaudy 63-2 record in 2011, including five straight final wins over Nadal, who admits the Djoker has haunted him.
"Hopefully New York [will] help me this time. I did not find the solution yet, but I will play aggressive with my forehand and try to play my best," said Nadal, who has won 10 of his 13 Grand Slam finals.