Commentary

Rafael Nadal saving best for now

World No. 1 has lost only 11 games in his past six sets heading into final

Updated: June 6, 2014, 6:17 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Attrition is the greatest mystery factor in these major events, the thing you can't quite quantify. The aspect that ultimately makes them grand is the slamming you take over the course of seven best-of-five-set matches.

At last year's Wimbledon final, Novak Djokovic was throttled in straight sets by Andy Murray after the Serb surviving a debilitating 4-hour, 43-minute semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro. On Friday at the French Open, it was Murray who looked something less than fresh.

He had spent nearly 15 hours on the court in the five matches before his semifinal with Rafael Nadal, more than 4½ hours longer than the Spaniard. Murray was happy to win two five-set matches for the first time in a Grand Slam, but clearly, the effort left him depleted.

[+] EnlargeNadal
AP Photo/Darko VojinovicRafael Nadal broke Andy Murray six times in three sets in their lopsided semifinal clash.

Nadal slashed and burned his way to a savage 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 victory -- please note the descending order of Murray's meager games -- and now we have the final that almost everyone wished for. On Sunday, the No. 1-seeded Nadal will attempt to win his ninth title at Roland Garros in a decade against No. 2 Djokovic, who defeated Ernests Gulbis earlier in four sets.

How did Nadal explain his dominance?

"I say the other day that I was practicing better than a long time ago," he said, "so that's why the result today, no? I think I played very well with my forehand. I think was important to serve the way that I served today. If I am able to hit a few forehands in a row is true that normally I have a lot of chances, have had good success."

Those hoping for some drama on this gloriously sunny day were sadly disappointed. Match time was a crisp 100 minutes. There were more numbers that told the one-sided story:

• Murray managed to successfully land only 52 percent of his first serves, a woeful percentage for an elite player.

• Nadal won 83 points, nearly twice as many as Murray, who had 43.

• Murray was broken each of the six times Nadal forced a break point. Nadal was not broken once.

"I played one of my best matches of this tournament, and of the year," Nadal said.

Djokovic had remained a marginal favorite over Nadal to win his first French Open. But now, Ladbrokes has Nadal as a 4-to-5 favorite and Djokovic at even.

"Novak already did a lot of times positive results here," Nadal said. "Is nothing new for him to be in the final. He has the motivation to win Roland Garros for the first time for sure. But at the same time, he has the pressure to win for the first time. But I don't know if that's gonna make a big impact on the match. What's going to make the real impact is the player who will be playing better."

Sure, Nadal has been oddly tentative this clay season, losing three matches on dirt for the first time in 10 years. In recent days, it's true, he has been nursing a balky back. And, yes, he has lost his past four matches to Djokovic, including the final three weeks ago in Rome. But none of those came here in the City of Light, where Nadal has been virtually unbeatable.

"So probably he will come to the match mentally a little bit better than me because he beat me the last four," Nadal said. "But at the same time, my feeling is I am doing the things better and I am playing better again, so that's a positive feeling for me.

"But it's true that he defeated me four times in a row. This will have an impact, but I hope it will not be too big of an impact."

Nadal's only loss here in 66 matches came against Robin Soderling in the 2009 fourth round. He is looking for his unprecedented fifth title in a row; the great Bjorn Borg, who was on hand to witness the carnage and celebrate his 58th birthday, won four in a row from 1978 to 1981. The win against Murray was Nadal's 34th in a row here, another record.

"He played a great match," Murray said later. "He missed hardly any balls."

They've now played 20 times. Was that the best he's seen Nadal?

"Yeah, I would say so," Murray said. "Today he was hitting extremely hard, extremely heavy, returning well, and was hitting it well on the run. Yeah, that's the toughest match I have played against him."

Oh, and don't look now, but a win here would give Nadal a total of 14 Grand Slam singles titles, equaling Pete Sampras and leaving him only three behind the all-time leader, a certain guy from Switzerland.

But that is getting ahead of things.

Murray, the No. 7 seed here, was attempting to become the first British man in the Open era to reach the Roland Garros final, something Fred Perry (no relation to Katy) did twice and Bunny Austin once back in the day. Murray and Nadal are separated by only one page in the media guide, but that's as close as the Scot came to him on Friday.

The only play-by-play necessary: Serving at 1-4 in the first set, Murray shanked a ball off his frame and it skied straight up, beyond the upper deck. Happy to be tasked with something that seemed do-able, he attempted to catch it with his racket. He whiffed, of course, perhaps losing it in the bright sun.

Match point was appropriately emphatic. Nadal broke Murray's serve for the sixth time with a thundering overhead. His fist pump afterward was relatively restrained.

"It's unbelievable to be in [a ninth] final," Nadal said. "It's very emotional for me. When I was a kid ... to come here any day and play ... Now, 10 years coming here. It's something I'll never forget in my life."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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