Murray gives Nadal a scare
Andy Murray underlined his credentials as a contender for the French Open by pushing world number one Rafael Nadal all the way at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, but the Scot came up just short in Rome.
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Murray had won just one set against Nadal in four previous clay court meetings, but showed flashes of his best form as he clinically took the opening five games, with the Spaniard appearing to be suffering from fatigue following his battles with Gilles Simon and Mikhail Youzhny earlier this week.
But the reigning champion responded to being thrashed in the opening set by finding another gear to take the match to a decider. Murray led that by a break but Nadal hit back to triumph 1-6 6-3 7-5 in two hours and 40 minutes to move into the semi-finals.
Nadal will now face 12th seed Grigor Dimitrov in the last four as he goes in search of a record eighth title at the Foro Italico, although he was given another stern test by Murray, with the pair's first meeting in three years a spectacular affair.
"I would have liked to have won because I had the opportunities and I started the match better than him,'' said the current world number eight on the official ATP World Tour website.
"I felt going into the French I would be playing good tennis.
"I don't feel like people have respected the severity of having back surgery, it takes time and I feel I am getting closer to where I want to be. [This] was the best I hit the ball and best I felt physically since the surgery.
"I was expecting to start playing well around this time, so that's pleasing. I was disappointed with the game I played at 4-2 in the third, though. Against him you don't get a load of chances and he finished the game incredibly well.
"Physically he was stronger than me at the end, but it was a good match.''
The 13-time grand slam winner had previously been taken to three sets by Simon and Youzhny, which were the two longest matches in Rome this week, and it appeared those battles had taken something out of him as Murray made a blistering start.
Two netted backhands saw Nadal drop serve in his opening service game and although he had break points to get back into the match, Murray's first serve percentage in the opening set was up at 80 per cent - which helped the British number one hold his nerve.
Some blistering groundstrokes kept Nadal pinned well behind the baseline as Murray broke to love before holding his serve to stretch his lead to a scarcely believable 5-0, with the Wimbledon champion closing the set out with ease, despite his opponent avoiding being bagelled.
But Nadal is no stranger to adversity and he raised his game significantly, earning his first break before moving 3-0 ahead.
Suddenly it was the Mallorcan in the ascendancy. His first serve had been down at 56 per cent in the first set but at 87 per cent in the second, Murray was not allowed a way back, with Nadal stepping further into the court.
The eight-time French Open champion clinically wrapped up the second set and took the momentum into the decider when two unforced errors from Murray saw him drop serve.
The 27-year-old broke straight back and then went 4-2 up with more powerful hitting although the see-saw nature of the match continued as Murray could not hold onto the break.
Murray did manage to avoid losing three in a row as Nadal squandered break points in the ninth game, but the left-hander was relentless and broke to love to move 6-5 ahead, with the London 2012 gold medallist double faulting at the wrong moment.
Nadal comfortably served out the match to stretch his record against Murray to 14 wins from their 19 meetings.
Nadal's last-four opponent will be 12th seed Grigor Dimitrov, who saw off Germany's 15th-seeded Tommy Haas to advance to a Masters 1000 semi for the first time.
With the score at 6-2 to Dimitrov, Haas retired due to a shoulder injury.
And the Bulgarian, playing on his 23rd birthday, told www.atpworldtour.com: "It was one of the most memorable days of my life.
"I was just talking to my team, it's my first win on my birthday, so it feels good. It's a bit unfortunate, the way it ended up. But I'm just a happy birthday boy today."
Also through is second seed and two-time champion Novak Djokovic, the Serb defeating Spain's fifth seed David Ferrer 7-5 4-6 6-3.
"It was the most physical match I had on clay this year," Djokovic said.
"I am really glad to overcome this challenge because David is a great competitor. I respect him a lot. We all know how good his record is on clay - the best after Nadal.
"Knowing that I am going to work for every single point of the match, coming out as a winner gives me a lot of satisfaction and confidence."
Djokovic's semi-final opponent is Canada's Milos Raonic, the eighth seed who beat Frenchman Jeremy Chardy, the conqueror of Roger Federer, 6-3 5-7 6-2