Rafael Nadal showed he was getting back to his best as he crushed Andy Murray at the World Tour Finals on Wednesday with an impressive 6-4, 6-1 victory.
The Spanish fifth seed was in dominant form as the British world number two’s game collapsed in front of a home crowd at the 17,800-capacity O2 Arena in London.
The resurgent Nadal is now through to the semi-finals of the the season-ending tournament, disputed on a hard court between the year’s top eight players.
In Friday’s final round-robin matches in their four-man group, Murray will face Swiss fourth seed Stan Wawrinka, with the winner joining Nadal in the last four.
The Spaniard’s spot in the semis was confirmed after seventh-seeded compatriot David Ferrer’s hopes of making it out of the group evaporated with a straight sets defeat to Wawrinka — 7-5, 6-2.
The first set of the match between Nadal and Murray was a high-level contest featuring impressive rallies and smart drop shots, but in the second, Murray’s game fell away as Nadal turned up the power.
Nadal, beset by problems during the worst year of his career, at one stage slumped to 10th in the world — his lowest position since 2005.
But the 14-time Grand Slam champion showed how dangerous he could be in 2016 if he continues his resurgence.
“This is an important victory,” the clay court-lover said.
“I have a big day against a great player on a tough surface.
“The positive results, the good feelings on court in terms of enjoying myself, in terms of image, is much better.
“But it is just the beginning. I need to keep working so hard to try to keep going the same way.
“Today I feel free. I feel I’m enjoying it on court.”
– Mid-match haircut -“He’s clearly playing better tennis now than a few months ago,” Murray said of Nadal.
“He’s come back from tight situations which is signs he is getting back to where he wants to be.
“Beginning of next year, he’ll be playing at a very, very high level again.”
After an early exchange of breaks, Murray produced a pair of scissors from his bag and snipped off part of his fringe.
“I had some hair in my eye, and I just wanted to get rid of it,” he said.
The Scot held off break points at 2-3 and 3-4 down but eventually cracked when serving to stay in the set, swiping at fresh air as Nadal broke to love.
In the second set, Murray made 16 unforced errors to Nadal’s three and won just 10 percent of the points on his second serve as the Mallorcan raced away with the match.
“He was able to dictate most of the points,” said Murray.
“I didn’t help myself out there. I served extremely low percentage, maybe lowest percentage I served the whole year in any match. That’s not good enough against someone as good as Rafa.”
After the World Tour Finals, Murray will lead Britain’s bid for a first Davis Cup title since 1936. Britain face hosts Belgium on a specially-laid clay court in Ghent in the November 27-29 final.
– Wawrinka on a roll -In Wednesday’s second match, French Open champion Wawrinka won five games in a row as Ferrer suffered a similar meltdown.
Ferrer was 4-1 up in the first set and had set point when serving at 5-3 but double-faulted. Wawrinka took advantage, broke and never looked back.
The Swiss broke again to go 6-5 up after another Ferrer double fault, then won the next game to love to take the set.
Wawrinka then motored through a second set in which he hit 19 winners to two from Ferrer.
Murray can guarantee finishing the season at number two, the highest year-end ranking of his career, if he beats Wawrinka, while Nadal faces compatriot Ferrer to complete the group phase.
In the other group, Roger Federer has already qualified for the semis, while world number one Novak Djokovic needs to beat Tomas Berdych in his last round-robin match on Thursday.
Kei Nishikori could join Federer in the semis if he beats the 17-time Grand Slam winner.