Rafael Nadal beat Andy Murray 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 on Saturday to play for his ninth Monte Carlo Masters title.
If Nadal beats Gael Monfils in the final on Sunday, he will earn a record-equaling 28th Masters title, tied with Novak Djokovic.
“It’s been a very important week for me,” Nadal said. “I increased the speed of the ball and played a little bit more inside the court, because Andy had control of the point too many times in the first set.”
Monfils eased past Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-1, 6-3 in all-French semifinal, breaking Tsonga’s serve six times in less than half the time Nadal spent turning the table on Murray.
The last French player to win here was Cedric Pioline in 2000 _ who was also the last French finalist _ and Monfils is the clear outsider considering he has lost 11 of 13 matches against Nadal, including all four on clay.
For Murray, it was a missed opportunity to become the first British player in the final in 56 years, and to beat Nadal for only the second time on clay _ having routed him 6-3, 6-2 in the Madrid Masters final last year.
“I missed some shots, but you have to take chances against the best players,” Murray said. “If you don’t do that, you’re going to lose anyway.”
Murray dominated on his serve _ and pressured Nadal’s _ throughout the first set, using his drop shot effectively. But Nadal broke Murray to start the second set on his way to a third win against Murray in a semifinal here.
The Spaniard found his serving range in the deciding set, twice holding at love and eventually clinching victory on his fifth match point.
Nadal, who won the last of his eight straight titles in 2012, then lost the final to Djokovic in 2013, has not won a tournament this year. The last of 67 titles was on clay at Hamburg last August while his last final was in January, losing to Djokovic in Doha.
Some tension showed as he served for the match _ with a full 10 minutes between his first match point and his successful fifth.
He got the win when Murray’s forehand swipe hit the net, improving to 17-6 in career meetings against Murray and 7-1 on clay.
Murray lost to Nadal in the semis here in 2009 and 2011 when the Spaniard was the undisputed world’s best on clay. But Nadal has since proven vulnerable, and the nine-time French Open champion relinquished his Roland Garros title last year to Stan Wawrinka.
Murray broke to lead 4-2 in the first set, and a superb drop shot from Murray gave him set point, which he clinched when Nadal netted a forehand.
The major turning point came when Nadal broke for 4-3 after Murray missed an easy smash at the net, allowing Nadal to pass him down the line.
Nadal then saved two break points in the next game to lead 5-3 as the players thrilled the crowd with some spectacular rallies.
After Nadal served out the second set, during which Murray got only 39 percent of his first serves in, the Spaniard broke him again at the start of the deciding set with an exquisite drop shot. Nadal stopped playing momentarily after dirt got in his eye.
“I didn’t want to stop when Andy was serving because (it) is not fair,” Nadal said. “But every time it was bothering me more and more and I was losing little bit of the vision, so I had to go to the chair and put some water (in my eye).”
Trailing 3-1, Murray’s composure wilted in the sunshine as he remonstrated several times with the chair umpire.
He was evasive about the reasons for his frustration.
“I don’t know how much of a bearing any of that had on the outcome,” he said.