LONDON (Reuters) - Rafael Nadal delved deep into his seemingly inexhaustible reserves of willpower on Saturday to fight off Andy Murray in a three-hour classic and reach the final of the ATP World Tour Finals for the first time.
A ferocious contest ebbed and flowed to keep a 17,500 sell-out crowd on the edge of their seats in the O2 Arena before the world number one finally edged it 7-6 3-6 7-6.
It was a match befitting the ATP’s glitzy year-ender which could still climax with another instalment of the Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer rivalry although Novak Djokovic will aim to stop the Swiss maestro later on Saturday.
One could only feel for Murray who played stunning tennis to stay with the Spaniard, who looks set to end a staggering year with the only major title still missing from his glittering CV.
Murray won five more points than Nadal during an energy-sapping contest and during a five-game stretch midway through the match appeared to have the Spanish dynamo on the ropes.
Even when Nadal roared back to take a 5-3 lead in the decider Murray refused to buckle and he saved two match points before finally succumbing.
Eleven of the 12 round robin matches here had been won in straight sets but when the gloves came off on Saturday, Murray and Nadal served up a long-overdue knockout blockbuster.
“I kind of knew when I was out there that it was a great match,” Murray, who will end the year fourth in the rankings, told reporters.
“The noise the crowd made when we changed ends at 6-6 in the (third set) tiebreak was pretty incredible. It’s nice in some ways to be involved in matches like that. But it’s not nice losing them.”
The opening exchanges set the tone for what was to come.
With a swirl of his yellow racket Nadal unloaded a crunching forehand to win the first point but Murray had come prepared to do battle and a compelling opening set went with serve to 6-6.
Nadal, who has won three of the four grand slam titles on offer since his lame performance here last year when he was short of form and confidence, turned the screws in the tiebreak with some destructive forehands.
However, Murray out-foxed his opponent to win a long baseline rally and drag the tiebreak back to 5-5 -- Nadal for once caught in two minds when presented with a passing chance.
Nadal responded, taking the first set with two points won at the net, and he had Murray in trouble at 15-40 early in the second set. Murray blasted down one of his 22 aces to stay in touch with the nine-times grand slam champion.
The Scot opened his shoulders at 3-3 in the second set to storm 0-40 ahead with some brutal hitting. Nadal saved all three break points, one with an astonishing sprint to pick up a Murray dropshot, but was helpless as Murray claimed the first break of the match with a scorching backhand winner.
The searing pace of the match appeared to be getting to Nadal as he dropped serve again to take the match into a third set. At 0-30 on his first service game the tide seemed to have turned in Murray’s favor but, crucially, the 23-year-old Scot momentarily lost his focus.
Revived, Nadal broke for 2-1 when Murray played what he described as his only bad game in the match and the Spaniard roared toward victory.
He squandered a match point at 5-3 and then Murray brought the house down by breaking for 5-5.
When Murray went 4-1 up in the sudden-death tiebreak the atmosphere was electrifying but Nadal clawed back the deficit to earn another match point when Murray collapsed in pain after being wrong-footed at 5-5. Again Murray held on but it was only a temporary reprieve as Nadal thumped away a forehand winner.
Editing by Pritha Sarkar
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