LONDON // The stark realisation at the end of a rain-hit ninth day at Wimbledon is that the host nation is no nearer to ending its elusive 72-year search for a men's singles champion than it was when Tim Henman was knocking on the door of greatness in eras dominated firstly by Pete Sampras and then Roger Federer.
Andy Murray, the current British No1 and regarded as a genuine contender to emulate the title-winning feats of Fred Perry, was shown in the most emphatic way imaginable how vast the gulf is between a top-ten player as he will be again when the new rankings list is published on Monday and the world's top two. Rafael Nadal, the powerful Spaniard who for the last three years has been gradually loosening Federer's grip on a title he has held since 2003, sent out the strongest signal yet that he is ready to take the step up from heir apparent to king of the All England Club by pulverising Murray mercilessly in a Centre Court master class late on Wednesday night.
Nadal walked on to the sport's greatest stage moments after having witnessed a sublime performance by Federer in sweeping aside what was expected to be a daunting challenge from Mario Ancic, the strong serving Croatian. If the world No1 was seeking to tell the world that he is not yet ready to hand over his crown with his dominant display, then Nadal answered that message with a vengeance. Murray, whose impressive flexed bicep in the aftermath of his thrilling fourth round win over Richard Gasquet had been interpreted, misguidedly as it turned out, as a signal to Nadal that he had no intention of being bullied in their quarter-final.
Outmuscled he certainly was as Nadal tore him apart ruthlessly. A shell-shocked Murray, who never got a sniff of a break point during his 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 hammering, confessed to being "amazed" by the power and control Nadal displayed in hitting a succession of punishing forehands. The young Scotsman tipped his conqueror, albeit cautiously, to take Federer's title if the pair meet on Sunday in the final.
"If he plays that well and returns like that, I think he is very close to being the favorite to win in the tournament," said Murray. "He was close last year, and I think he's playing better than he was last year." Murray, 21, insists that his own prospects of winning Wimbledon one day are bright. He said: "I think here and the US Open are my two best opportunities to win a grand slam. There are fewer guys who play well on grass than on the hard courts so I believe I have a chance on grass, but I do feel more comfortable playing on the American hard courts."
Nadal, meanwhile, was brimming with confidence about his prospects of reaching a third successive final after turning in what he considered to be his best performance at Wimbledon. Asked what part of his game particularly pleased him, he replied: "Everything, everything." He refused to talk in detail about renewing his rivalry with Federer, whom he thrashed in last month's final of the French Open, until he has accounted for unseeded opposition in today's semi-finals. But he did say: "I have to play very well if I want to win this tournament. I am playing well, but I don't know if it is enough. I hope so."
As The National went to press last night Nadal still did not know who he will meet in the last four. The clash between the German Rainer Schuettler and Arnaud Clement was locked at two sets all before rain forced the players off. Nadal knows that Federer is going to take some shifting from his lofty perch and so does Marat Safin, the Russian who attempts to do so in today's semi-finals. The enigmatic Safin deliberately talked down his chances of prospering in his first semi-final on the SW19 courts.
"To beat Federer you need to be Nadal and run around like a rabbit and hit winners from all over the place," said Safin after accounting for Feliciano Lopez. "I think it might be just a little bit too difficult for me to beat him." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org