Not only did Andy Murray take the first set of his Wimbledon semifinal against Rafael Nadal, but he did so with such ease that the idea of him knocking off the 10-time Grand Slam champion and becoming the first British man to advance to the tournament final in 75 years seemed possible, if not likely.
Murray was hitting balls crisply and had the confidence that was on display throughout his run to the semifinals. Nadal was oddly reserved, almost as if he knew that if Murray continued to play at such a high level then there was little he could do.
Early in the second set, the world No. 4 had a chance to break open the match. Leading 30-15 on Nadal's serve, Murray had an opportunity to hit an easy forehand winner that would have given him two break points to go up 3-1. With the backing of the crowd at Centre Court and the boost of self-assurance the break would give him, Murray was on the brink. Get that forehand in and maybe, just maybe ...
Murray lost the next point and the next one after that and then the two after that. His theoretical 3-1 lead became a 2-2 tie that felt like a 1-3 deficit. Nadal saw the window open and pounced. He won the next seven games and the rest of the match was mere formality. It was his 20th straight victory at the All England Club.
Something changed in both players after that point. Murray didn't collapse, per se; to suggest that would be to minimize the brilliance of Nadal. The Spaniard went into Rafa gear after staving off the break. Murray shrunk into the player that he's been in other big Grand Slam moments. The lead all but evaporated.
Murray folds at the first sign of pressure. Whereas Jo-Wilfried Tsonga can come back from two sets down against Federer, and Federer can do the same against Nadal, and Djokovic can stay competitive in a French Open semifinal when things don't go his way, Murray hasn't shown a knack for it during his career. (And, no, doing it against Viktor Troicki in the fourth round of the French Open doesn't count.) Look at his record in Slams. He's a great front-runner. When he goes down, he goes down hard. Murray's troubling habit of going down at the first punch and never recovering is what has kept him from becoming from a Slam champion.
He's going to win a major someday; he's too good not to. At some point, his on-court mental issues will be outweighed by his talent. For now, he's left to wonder what could have been.
Nadal confirmed that the missed forehand was a turning point. Of all the 216 points in the match, he singled out that one in an interview with the BBC.
"He was playing fantastic at the beginning but he had an important mistake in the beginning of the second at 15-30," Nadal said. "He had an easy forehand he played long, so that was probably one of the turning points of the match."