Andy Murray will have to get the better of world No 1 Novak Djokovic if he wants to claim a place in the French Open final for the first time in his career.
The British No 1 had to battle to defeat Spain’s David Ferrer in four sets in yesterday’s quarter-final to reach the last four.
Murray appeared in command at two sets to love up, but he surrendered the third set after frittering away a match point.
However, after taking a rest-room break ahead of the fourth set, he managed to discover some corruscating form and won the match 7-6 (7/4) 6-2 5-7 6-1.
Murray, who had never before beaten Ferrer on clay, will play Djokovic in the semi-final tomorrow after the Serb romped past nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal.
Murray has lost all of his last seven meetings against Djokovic and if he is to prevent the world No 1 from claiming his first title at Roland Garros, he cannot allow the same lapses of concentration he afforded Ferrer.
The 28-year-old enjoyed a dream start, smothering the Spaniard’s second serve and breaking in the first game, but the Scot struggled to maintain his level during the early exchanges.
A combination of aggressive returns, inconsistent serving and sloppy errors meant there were only three holds in the first eight games, and while Murray led 3-1 and then 5-3 he was far from his fluent best.
Serving for the set, Murray was broken to love and then the Scot had to save two set points to force a tie-break.
The missed opportunities seemed to destabilise Ferrer, who blasted a simple volley wide to give Murray a 3-0 lead before complaining to photographers about their snapping while he served.
Jolted into life, Murray opened up a 6-1 advantage and while the Spaniard won three in a row to start the nerves jangling, Murray regained composure, dispatching a backhand volley to clinch the opening set.
Ferrer could have hit back early in the second when he led 40-0 on the Murray serve, but again he squandered the chances and allowed his opponent to begin his best spell of the match.
Two Ferrer double faults helped the Scot take an instant break himself and a stunning backhand slice, which opened up a 4-1 lead, was just one of several winners as Murray served out for a two-set lead.
The world No 3 was now in the ascendancy, attacking Ferrer’s second serve at every opportunity and dominating the baseline with more aggression and confidence.
A break in the second game appeared to put Murray on course for victory, but his stride was suddenly broken by a limp drop shot as Ferrer broke back for 3-3.
The Spaniard continued to harangue the photographers, and even protested to the umpire, but he kept focus and survived a match point for Murray to level at 5-5.
Murray, perhaps stewing over his missed opportunity, handed his opponent a lifeline as a double fault and a netted backhand gave Ferrer a decisive break, which he served out to pull a set back.
The hindrance, however, only seemed to spur Murray on as he clicked into gear in the fourth set, demolishing Ferrer with a number of exhilarating backhands, drop shots and retrievals to race into a 5-0 lead.
Ferrer still would not lie down and he saved two more match points to make Murray serve out, but this time the Scot made no mistake, wrapping up victory in three hours and 16 minutes.
Nadal has lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires nine times in 10 years, but he struggled to keep pace with Djokovic, who hit 45 winners and broke the Spaniard’s serve seven times in yesterday’s other men’s quarter-final.
“I had my moments but, in general, Novak had me under control most of the time,” Nadal said. “He was better than me. That’s it. Here it is simple. When the opponent plays better than you and is in better shape than you, then it can happen. That happened and I just congratulate him.”
Nadal arrived at the French Open having lost five matches on clay already this year and without winning a European clay-court event for the first time in over a decade.
Convincing victories and encouraging performances in the early rounds at Roland Garros hinted at a return to form, but Nadal admits he was not ready for the level of Djokovic.
“It is not a big surprise, no, after a year when I didn’t win enough before here,” Nadal said.
“When you see the draw, quarter-finals against Novak, obvious that is early, a big match like that.
“I was playing fine. I am happy the way that I recovered my level in the last month, but probably not enough yet to play against and to win against Novak.
“To play, yes. I competed, but not to win. I’m going to fight. I lost in 2009 and that was not the end.
“I lost in 2015 and it is not the end. I hope to be back here the next year with another chance.”