NEW YORK -- Rafael Nadal hunched over, his chest heaving, his hopes of reaching his first U.S. Open final fading fast.
No one ever seems to run Nadal ragged.
Andy Murray managed to do just that.
Exhibiting precisely the sort of winner-vaporizing, opponent-demoralizing defense new No. 1 Nadal usually employs, Murray reached his first Grand Slam final by completing a stunning, rain-interrupted 6-2, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4 upset of the Spaniard on Sunday.
"He beat me because he was better than me," acknowledged Nadal, whose 19-match winning streak at major tournaments ended. "When he's playing aggressive, he can beat everybody."
Now, instead of a third consecutive Grand Slam final between Nadal and the man he replaced atop the rankings, Roger Federer, it will be Murray vs. Federer on Monday night.
Federer will be attempting to win his fifth consecutive U.S. Open championship and 13th Grand Slam title overall. And Murray? The 21-year-old Scot is trying to become the first British man to win a major tennis title since Fred Perry at the 1936 U.S. Open.
Get this, though: Murray owns a 2-1 career mark against Federer.
"He's got loads of experience in these situations, and it's something new for me," Murray said. "I know I'm going to have to play great to have a chance of winning, but I've played well the last couple of weeks."
The sixth-seeded Murray won the first two sets against Nadal and was down a break at 3-2 in the third in Louis Armstrong Stadium when play was suspended Saturday because of Tropical Storm Hanna. As should surprise no one, the generally indefatigable Nadal made a stand when they resumed things in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday, taking the third set and going ahead 3-1 in the fourth after saving seven break points in one game.
"It was almost slipping away," Murray said.
But he took five of the last six games, twice breaking Nadal, who later said he "wasn't very fresh" and complained that the U.S. Open plays the men's semifinals the day before the final.
While they were exerting themselves, striding and sweating this way and that, the second-seeded Federer went through more-relaxed paces in a practice session Sunday. He managed to get through his semifinal before the rain arrived Saturday, beating Novak Djokovic in four sets for a 33rd consecutive victory at the U.S. Open.
After that match, Federer said he'd prefer to play Nadal in the final, mentioning his losses to his nemesis in the French Open and Wimbledon finals this year.
"I mean, I'd like to play Andy, as well, but obviously he hasn't been as good as Rafa for the past years, you know," Federer said Saturday. "But I'm sure he will be, you know, at the top of the game for a very long time, because I always thought Andy has incredible talent."
Murray entered his first major semifinal 0-5 against Nadal as professionals. Nadal, meanwhile, was hoping to become only the fourth man in the 40-year Open era to win three consecutive Grand Slam titles, joining Rod Laver, Pete Sampras and Federer. And while he did win the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, Nadal has never had as much success on the hard courts of the U.S. Open as on the clay of Roland Garros or the grass of the All England Club.
While Murray's skills have been clear since he won the 2004 U.S. Open junior title, he knew he had work to do. With a new team of support staff since the end of last year, he's focused on improving the strength of his body and mind.
"I go on the court now without feeling like I have anything to worry about, because I've worked hard and practiced hard and given myself the best opportunity to play well," he said. "All I've got to do is play tennis, which is one of the few things that I'm good at."
He was great against Nadal, getting the better of long baseline exchanges and wearing him down. One smart strategy: Murray stood waaaaaaay back to return serves, sometimes 10 feet behind the baseline, in order to adjust to Nadal's heavy spin.
Murray, assured of a career-high ranking of No. 4, faced some real tests of nerves in the fourth set, including a break point in the first game that he saved with one of his 21 aces.
Another gut-check moment came when Murray accumulated those seven break points at 1-0 in the fourth -- and wasted all, part of a stretch in which he went 0-for-15 on break chances. It was a 22-point, 15-minute novella of a game, filled with highs and lows, physical and mental.
Murray then made four unforced errors to get broken at love and fall behind 2-1.
"The momentum was kind of with him a little bit," Murray said.
Down 3-1 in the fourth, Murray fell behind love-30 on his serve. But it was Nadal who sailed two forehands long and missed a drop volley, and Murray broke to 3-3.
Then, with Nadal serving in what would be the final game, Murray won a 22-stroke point with a volley winner to get to match point. Nadal bent over, wincing as he sucked in air. Nadal never, ever looks tired on a tennis court. He did right then.
The contrast between the two was evident on the next point, too, when Nadal tried a drop shot that Murray chased down to smack a winner.
"I just had to keep my head down and watch the ball -- and that was that," Murray said. "I didn't feel particularly nervous."
During an on-court interview afterward, Murray described himself as "very relieved" to have won and to have reached the title match at his "favorite tournament" -- which might draw some double-takes in the land of Wimbledon.
He explained, though, he was thrilled to have seen his favorite comedic actor, Will Ferrell, in the stands Sunday, and was also excited to have spotted members of the cast of the TV show "Entourage" at the tournament.
"That's awesome," Murray said. "You don't get that back home."
Others might be star-struck staring across the net at Federer.
"He's probably the greatest player ever, so to get the chance to play against him in a Slam final is an honor," Murray said. "But I've played well against him in the past and hopefully ... I'll do that again tomorrow."