Andy Murray had said he was looking forward to his meeting with Rafael Nadal in the third round of the Madrid Masters here last night as a chance to measure his progress since coming back from a wrist injury.
If there was disappointment for the 20-year-old Scot in losing 7-6, 6-4 to the world No 2, he had every reason to take encouragement from a fine performance in a pulsating match that lasted two and a quarter hours.
Although Murray has lost both his meetings with Nadal this year, having succumbed over five sets in the Australian Open in January, both have been enthralling contests. As he had in Melbourne, Murray adopted an attacking approach, going for his shots and aiming to keep Nadal as far behind the baseline as possible. Murray's tally of 33 winners and 38 unforced errors was evidence of his bold tactics and the sheer weight of his shots showed that the wrist problems that kept him out of Wimbledon and the French Open are now behind him. If there were weaknesses in his game, it was a drop in the consistency of his first serve in the second set and a failure to put away some of his volleys.
This is Nadal's first tournament since he limped out of the US Open and the strapping he wore on both knees was evidence of the tendinitis that has kept him off court in recent weeks. He may be a little below his best, but he gave everything in front of his home crowd and his extravagant celebrations showed what victory meant to him. The Spaniard said afterwards Murray was " one of the best players in the world" and "an unbelievable talent" .
Murray said: "Obviously I wasn't playing at my highest level when I first came back from my injury, so it's good to be back playing at this level and giving the No 2 player in the world a good match.
"Maybe it would have been different if I had taken some of my chances earlier, but it was tight all the way. I didn't serve so well after the first four or five service games and maybe I made too many unforced errors. They're things that I can learn from."
Murray dropped only two points in his first three service games and forced five break points in Nadal's, but it was the Spaniard who struck the first blow, breaking to love to lead 6-5 with some potent counter-attacking. Murray responded in kind, however, breaking back to love by concentrating on his opponent's weaker backhand.
He saved a first set point in the tie-break with a big forehand winner behind an even bigger backhand, but on the second, at 5-6, was punished for failing to put away a volley, Nadal finishing the point with a forehand winner down the line.
Murray came out flying in the second set, breaking serve in the opening game with a thumping backhand winner, and had two points on Nadal's serve for a 5-2 lead. The world No 2 held on, however, and played superbly to break Murray in both of the Scot's last two service games.
Nadal is one of only two current players who have beaten Roger Federer three times or more and have a positive head-to-head record against him. Guillermo Canas is the other and went into his match against the world No 1 here yesterday boasting a 3-1 record.
Fifty-three minutes later the score stood at 3-2. Federer, earning revenge for his shock defeats to the Argentine in successive Masters series tournaments earlier this year in Indian Wells and Miami, won 6-0, 6-3 with a fine display of attacking tennis.