Nadal, who will play Roger Federer in the final tomorrow, celebrated his 25th birthday by moving to within one victory of a sixth title at Roland Garros as he withstood a gutsy display from the world No 4 to triumph 6-4 7-5 6-4.
It was straight sets but certainly not straightforward for the top seed as Murray acquitted himself extremely well in his first French Open semi-final, building on impressive performances in Monte Carlo and Rome.
He said: “At the start of the clay-court season there’s no chance anyone was thinking I’d be in this position. I’m happy that I managed to put myself in that position (yesterday).
“Rafa is a better clay-court player than me. That’s a fact. It’s always been like that since we both started on the tour. His results would show that.
“But I feel like I’ve closed the gap. I think I’m a lot better on clay than I was last year. I still have a way to go to be as good as him, and so does pretty much every player on the tour.
“I need to work on some things. I look forward to that for next year, but now I’ve got to concentrate on how to win against the likes of him and Roger and Novak on the grass. It’s a different game, so I look forward to that.”
For the third match in a row Murray, who revealed he may pull out of the AEGON Championships at Queen’s Club as he attempts to recover fully from his ankle injury, found himself playing catch-up in the opening set as fired-up Nadal raced into a 5-1 lead.
Pulling the Spaniard back was a different proposition to his comebacks against Viktor Troicki and Juan Ignacio Chela but to his credit Murray dug in and took advantage of three uncharacteristic errors to pull one break back.
He then had two chances to level at 5-5 but he could not take either, and it was a pattern that would be repeated throughout the match.
Eighteen times Murray created break points but 15 of them were saved by Nadal, who as ever reserved his very best for when he most needed it.
Two breaks came in a ding-dong spell in the middle of the second set when the Spaniard twice moved ahead only to be immediately pegged back.
Murray also had a golden chance at the start of the set but found the gusting wind as fierce a foe as Nadal.
The crucial break came in the 11th game as the Spaniard pegged his opponent back from 40-15, and this time he took his chance to move two sets to the good.
Murray played a rare poor game to give away a break at the start of the third and, despite his best efforts, it was a deficit he could not recover.
The Scot was content with his performance and conceded Nadal had been just too good.
He said: “It was a long match, there were a lot of deuce games. A lot of service games were really, really tight. I thought I did well.
“Everyone seems to think it’s easy against Rafa to just come into the net or go for big shots, but you do have to be very patient.
“Sometimes I didn’t quite get the ball I was looking for, and sometimes when I did I made a few mistakes.
“But I think it was a close match. I don’t think there was too much in it. He just played better than me. That’s the difference.”
Murray moved well and did not appear to be affected too much by the ankle he rolled in his third-round win over Michael Berrer, but he will not take any chances ahead of Wimbledon.
The 24-year-old added: “I’ll see my physio and talk about the best thing to do. If staying on the anti-inflammatories and the painkillers is right, then I could easily be on the practice court (today).
“But if it’s best to get off them for a few days, see how everything is really feeling, I might have to take a couple days off and see.”
Federer earned his place in the final when he ended Novak Djokovic’s winning run in 2011 with an extraordinary 7-6 (7/5) 6-3 3-6 7-6 (7/5) victory.
The world No 2 was looking to equal John McEnroe’s record of 42 straight wins to start a season and become world No 1 in the process.
But it was not to be, and tomorrow Federer will attempt to beat Nadal for the first time at Roland Garros.
Serb Djokovic was below his best in the opening two sets, perhaps affected by his five-day break following the withdrawal of quarter-final opponent Fabio Fognini, but he got better and better and the fourth set was sporting drama of the highest quality.
Federer had played 174 previous matches at grand slams without losing from two sets up but he found himself a break down at the start of the third as Djokovic fought for his French Open life.
And that was enough for the Serb to take the set as the clock ticked past 8.30pm.
Djokovic will have taken heart from last year’s US Open semi-final, where he had trailed Federer by two sets to one and saved match points, while he had also won their last three meetings.
In the fourth-set tie-break a crucial error came from 24-year-old Djokovic allowing Federer a mini-break for 4-3, which he consolidated with two big serves.
A net cord saved one match point and an ace the second, but an 18th ace gave the world No 3 victory with darkness falling.