NEW YORK -- Rafael Nadal was positively sneering on the baseline, awaiting a serve that brought with it an opportunity called match point.
All match long, Andy Murray had pushed Nadal from side to side and up to reach well-angled shots near the net during points so long that both players looked winded.
But the fourth-seeded Murray would lose the match on a relatively short point, sending a backhand wide as No. 2 Nadal won 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 to advance to the U.S. Open final against top-seeded Novak Djokovic.
"I am playing very good level, I think every day better, and today I played my best match against a most difficult opponent," Nadal said.
Nadal and Djokovic will get a day off between the semifinal and Monday's men's final. Nadal had complained to tournament officials, and said asking the men to play four straight days wasn't good for the players. In a rain-saturated tournament in which players were asked to go out on wet courts, Nadal will have his day.
"To have one day off in the middle I think is very positive news for me," Nadal said, "because I played three matches in a row."
The match against Murray was not easy. Points were long and athletic, as players extended to all parts of the court. Murray needed a 28-stroke rally to break the Spaniard to start the third set, but Nadal broke back. Nadal won 6 of 18 break points, while Murray won just 2 of 10, but the second break came in the third for the only set Murray won.
Nadal even said of all the men who deserved to win a Grand Slam and haven't yet, it's Murray. The Brit became the seventh man in the Open era to reach all four Slam semifinals in a calendar year. Nadal said Murray was unlucky to not have won one yet.
"If you want to judge someone's whole career based purely on Slams, I would have had a terrible career," Murray said. "But I don't really feel like I have. So, you know, there have been other things I've done well, and I've still got hopefully three or four more years where I'm playing the tennis in my peak. I need to stay healthy and, you know, improve."
And to beat Djokovic, Nadal must improve as well. Nadal hasn't beaten Djokovic all year, and the Serbian is the only player other than Roger Federer who has been able to widen cracks in Nadal's confidence. Nadal recognizes self-doubt is his worst enemy on the court, and hopes he can clear it by Monday.
"That's big problem," Nadal said. "Because when that's happening, you have your chances less, much less than if you believe. Because if you believe, you are running more, you are putting one more ball inside."
There was a poignant moment after Nadal won. When he was given the microphone in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Nadal expressed empathy with New Yorkers with the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 a morning away. Four months before the attack, he had visited the World Trade Center with his family, going all the way to the top. He explained why he wanted to say something on court.
"That's a hard day for all the people here in New York tomorrow, all the people in America," Nadal said. "But I think for all the people around the world, too, no? Because this kind of tragedy for everybody is hard to accept, hard to understand. I am not an exception."