Rafa's display of savage shot-making

WIMBLEDON, England -- He had already lost even before he played the match. And so, for a set or so, Rafael Nadal seemed a tad distracted.

Earlier, Novak Djokovic had lifted his No. 1 ranking with a victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in their semifinal, and Andy Murray -- supported by an adoring Centre Court crowd -- leaped into that odd vacuum with a vengeance.

After Murray won the first set, BBC announcer Andrew Castle asked drolly if it was time to trot out Fred Perry and Bunny Austin, the last British men to play in the Wimbledon final 75 and 73 years ago, respectively.

"It's still early," said three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker, showing rare restraint.

Nadal, one of the most brutally relentless athletes in the world, chased down Murray on his home court Friday and throttled him. At times in the waning moments, it was difficult to watch. Rafa, after stroking one last savage forehand, won 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 in just under three hours.

"To win against Andy, I needed to play my best tennis today," Nadal said, "and I played my best tennis. For me is a dream to be back in final another time. I feel sad for Andy. He deserved to be in this final."

With all due respect, Rafa, no he didn't. Murray, nursing a sore hip, offered little resistance down the stretch.

And now we have this delicious scenario to contemplate: The soon-to-be No. 2 Nadal meets the soon-to-be No. 1 Djokovic in a Sunday final likely to produce some drama. For this is the new power duo in tennis and these head-to-head matchups are the building blocks of their legacies.

Nadal, it should be pointed out, is looking for his fifth major among the past six.

Djokovic, who lost to Roger Federer in the semifinals at Roland Garros, has the opportunity to prove he's worthy of the crown that has belonged to Nadal and Federer exclusively for the past 7.5 years. Djokovic has won 47 of his 48 matches this year.

And yet the local history says Nadal is the player to beat.

He's won 20 straight matches at the All England Club, a searing stretch that goes back nearly four years. He won the titles in 2008 and 2010 but missed the 2009 tournament with injured knees.

Murray is from Scotland, but he has been embraced by a title-starved Great Britain. An estimated 12 million (one-fifth of the country) watched on television and the gates of the All England were closed after the club reached capacity.

As usual for a Murray match, Henman Hill was packed, with grounds-pass holders watching on the big electronic screen. But though the mood in past has been buoyant, this crowd was oddly quiet, pensive even. Clearly, it was aware of the awful history here carved out by British men in the semifinals. The past 10 times it happened -- Tim Henman on four occasions and two by Murray -- they all lost.

Seventy-three years ago, Henry "Bunny" Austin defeated Henner Henkel to reach the final.

That was the carrot on a stick for Murray, and for a set at least, he was convincing. The key stroke in holding at 5-all was a 135 mph serve, his fastest of the tournament. The decisive moment in breaking Nadal's serve for the set was when he came forward and forced a backhand wide.

Nadal, even with a left-foot injury that was numbed with a pain-killing injection, is relentless in these matches. In the second set, Murray contributed to the cause, missing a sitter with a forehand long that would have given him two break points in the fourth game.

"He was playing fantastic at the beginning," Nadal said. "[It was an] important mistake [at]15-30. That was probably one of the turning points of the match."

Said Murray: "It was a big point. I was playing high-risk tennis most of the match. I went for it today and started to make a few mistakes. You can't talk about a match that goes three hours being decided by one point. Against Rafa you have to go for big shots. I slightly over-hit that one."

And then Murray missed a makeable smash that broke his serve for the first time. The service breaks and fluffed forehands that followed were predictable. Nadal, grim, held his last 13 service games.

In the end, Nadal played like the 10-time Grand Slam champion he is. Murray, still only 24, has yet to snare that first major, but he showed signs in the first set he might be willing to embrace the risk that will be required to bring that ultimate reward.

Thus, the long national nightmare continues.

And that means somewhere, Austin probably is smiling, his record secure for another year. Slim, gracious and a splendid shot-maker, he lost to Donald Budge in the 1938 finals. Perhaps more important, in terms of tennis history, he was the first player to wear shorts.

In 2000, he was rolled onto Centre Court in a wheelchair as part of All England's millennium celebration of champions. Austin received a warm ovation and later called it the happiest day of his life.

He died two months later on his 94th birthday.

Nadal is friendly with Murray. They sometimes play video games, and when they met at the net, there was genuine affection as they briefly talked. He said, going forward, Murray needed only a little more luck before he equaled the records of Austin and Perry.

"It's tough," Murray said, "but I'm giving it my best shot, trying my hardest, and that's all I can do. I'm disappointed but normally after four or five days, barring Australia, I recover quite quickly from losing."

In the Djokovic match, luck will not be a player.

Nadal has lost to the svelte Serb four times already this year, but none of those events was a Grand Slam. Rafa is 4-0 in majors against Djokovic, a perfect record he burns to keep intact.

"I will try my best," Rafa said, smiling, "as always."

You know what that means.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.