ROME -- In their first meeting since 2011, Rafael Nadal rallied from a set down and a break down in the third set to defeat Andy Murray 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 to advance to the semifinals of the Italian Open, where he will face 12th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov. The match was a high-quality affair, with both men finding their best clay-court form of the season in a topsy-turvy match that wasn't decided until the final game. The win marked the first time since 2005 that Nadal has won three consecutive decisive-set matches on clay in a single tournament.
"This one is a very important one for me against a very difficult player," Nadal said. "One of the best players in the world. He played well. It's a victory that means a lot to me."
Murray raced through the first set, building a 5-0 lead behind an aggressive game plan that offered up a perfect mix of big hitting offense and scrambling defense, which left Nadal on his heels and pushed back deep behind the baseline. Nadal was limited to just two winners, while Murray took firm control of nearly every point, hitting 11 winners to 8 unforced errors. It was the best set of tennis Murray has played since his return from back surgery last fall.
"Tonight was probably the best I've hit the ball for a while and it's the best I've felt physically since the surgery," Murray said. "I was starting to get there the last couple of weeks, but the beginning of the year was tough for me in that respect. I feel like now I'm hitting the ball cleanly."
But Nadal quickly adjusted in the second set. He held his position near the baseline, attacked the net, and took control of the set early, racing to a 3-0 lead. His positive play paid off -- he hit 15 winners to 7 unforced errors -- and Murray began to leak more errors. As opposed to his first two matches in the tournament, which also ended in three-set wins, Nadal says his performance against Murray was a huge improvement.
"Tonight I didn't have negative thoughts through the whole match," he said. "The first two days even if I fought a lot I had some doubts."
Nadal earned an early break in the first game of the third set and given his surging play it looked like the break would be enough to hold out the match. But Murray broke back right away and then broke again to earn a 4-2 lead. The Scot, who came in with a 5-13 record against Nadal, felt like he rushed. He fell behind 15-40 trying to consolidate and Nadal broke to get back on serve.
Watch Nadal's fantastic effort to convert break point below:
Video: Murray breaks, Nadal breaks right back! What a match! http://t.co/N582SbFgGg
— TennisTV (@TennisTV) May 16, 2014
From there Nadal's physically won out. He raised his level and eventually broke Murray at love when Murray double-faulted on break point for the second time to hand Nadal the match.
"After that [4-2] game I was still in a good position but against him you don't get loads of chances and that was my chance there and I played a poor game," Murray said. "He finished the match incredibly well. Physically he was a little bit stronger than me at the end. But apart from that it was a good match."
Nadal was far more positive assessing his performance against Murray than after his first two wins in the tournament. He finished with 26 winners to 22 unforced errors, while Murray hit 30 winners to 41 unforced errors.
"I really didn't felt I was playing bad in the first set," Nadal said. "It's true that I was playing probably tactically not good but my inside energy was more positive than the day before. I felt more energetic on court with more positive attitude in my movements."
The hard-fought win over Murray was precisely what Nadal needed as he works to improve his confidence for the French Open. He was notably subdued after grinding out tough wins over Gilles Simon and Mikhail Youzhny in his first two matches in Rome, and seemed to embrace his newfound clay-court mortality. This could be the win that helps clear his mind.
"If my mental part works well, my tennis is going to be there," Nadal said. "Soon or later, but it's going to be there. And today, for moments, I felt like I played one of my best matches since a while. So very happy for that."