WIMBLEDON, England — Shortly after the All England club gates opened for the Wimbledon men’s semifinals on Friday, the tournament announcer declared over the public-address system that he was “delighted and somewhat shocked” to report that another day of clear skies was in store.
“Delighted and somewhat shocked” was the widespread sentiment five hours later as Scotland’s Andy Murray, playing a swashbuckling style of tennis, won his opening set against top-seeded Rafael Nadal and moved within two sets of becoming the first British man to reach Wimbledon’s final since 1938.
It wasn’t to be.
As is his custom, Nadal refused to wilt and charged back for a 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 victory that sent him into Sunday’s final — his fifth Wimbledon final in the last six years — where he’ll face No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic, who subdued the hard-hitting Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 6-7 (11-9), 6-3 earlier in the day.
Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, with his victory over Tsonga, Djokovic is ensured of vaulting ahead of Nadal to claim the world No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career when statistics are updated on Monday.
While Nadal has won more Grand Slam titles (10 to Djokovic’s two), and Roger Federer has won more majors (16) than Nadal and Djokovic combined, Djokovic has compiled the best record in match play this year. The 24-year-old Serb has lost only once in 2011, to Federer in the French Open semifinals, and boasts a 47-1 record that includes four victories over Nadal in the last four months.
Nadal offered nothing but congratulations to Djokovic for ascending to No. 1.
“What he did this first part of the season is something really impressive, really fantastic,” said Nadal, 25, Wimbledon’s two-time defending champion, who extended his winning streak at the All England club to 20 with the victory over Murray.
Although Nadal’s record against Murray was 11-4, Britain’s chronically disappointed tennis fans had reason to believe the Scot was poised for a breakthrough. The 6-foot-3 Murray, who has beefed up his wiry frame and upgraded his fitness over the last 12 months, is widely considered the best player yet to win a Grand Slam title. He reached the final of the Australian Open this year, losing to Djokovic, and arrived at Wimbledon on a nine-match winning streak on grass courts.
Murray started brilliantly, blasting six aces past Nadal in the first set alone and breaking the Spaniard in the 12th game. For Murray, winning the set was a triumph in itself; his previous Wimbledon matches against Nadal had ended in straight-sets defeats.
But the complexion of the match changed on a single stroke. To that point, Murray had overpowered Nadal with his serve and dictated the play with blistering, line-skimming groundstrokes.
With a chance to break Nadal early in the second set, Murray badly over-hit a forehand to the open court. The opportunity squandered, Murray sank in a stew of self-loathing.
And Nadal kept slugging away, running down seemingly irretrievable drop shots and cross-court bullets. Time and again, shots that Murray thought were winners came back slathered with Nadal’s heavy topspin.
Murray countered by plowing balls into the net in frustration or spraying them well past the baseline.
By the fourth set, Murray seemed fully two inches shorter, beaten down not so much by the physical pounding as the mental bludgeoning.
“Even when he’s not hitting the ball unbelievable from the middle of the court, he gets to a lot of balls, makes you play an extra ball all the time,” said Murray, who finished with 39 unforced errors to Nadal’s seven.
Djokovic proved equally indefatigable against the 12th-seeded Tsonga, who manhandled Federer, the six-time Wimbledon champion, in the quarterfinals.
Tsonga couldn’t replicate that standard of play against Djokovic, though he delivered the point of the tournament in the opening set — diving full out for a stab volley and bouncing back up, after landing on elbows and knees, to lunge in the opposite direction and smack back Djokovic’s reply for a clean winner.
The 200-pound Tsonga raised his arms in triumph as the Centre Court crowd roared, and Djokovic applauded with his racket strings.
But Djokovic wore the big Frenchman down with his tireless retrieving.
“I tried to make my chances on every point,” Tsonga said, “but [it] was just tough because he was running everywhere. I saw the ball all the time come back.”