Andy Murray showed every sign of finding his feet on clay but ultimately had to bow to the master in Monte Carlo.
Making his first semi-final appearance on the surface, the British number one produced some scintillating tennis, particularly in the second set, before falling 6-2 7-6 (7/4) to Rafael Nadal.
The world’s best player – and arguably the greatest clay-courter in history - has now won 26 successive games at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters and will face Novak Djokovic tomorrow in pursuit of a fifth straight title.
Murray immediately showed a willingness to go toe-to-toe with the majestic Spaniard – a crashing forehand winner up the line after an impressive rally in the opening game as good as any shot seen this week.
The Scot was playing with confidence but Nadal showed customary tenacity to force break points in game two, the second of which was converted when a forehand was sent long by the Briton.
Murray is equally difficult to subdue these days, however, and he broke straight back when Nadal sliced a backhand beyond the baseline.
A third straight break followed for the four-time French Open champion and this time Nadal backed it up with a comfortable hold as the Majorcan began to seize control of the match.
The Briton showed impressive grit to come back from 0-40 down and hold for 4-2, but two games later a wayward volley handed Nadal a set point which was converted when Murray sent a forehand long.
A 6-2 scoreline was reflective of the Spaniard’s domination, and Murray’s first-serve percentage of less than 50% in the opening set was woefully inadequate in such exalted company.
An ace was an excellent way for the Dunblane-born world number four to start his first service game of the second set, and it signalled a return to form with a hold to love for 1-1.
Nadal had lost some of his previous supremacy but Murray, as with so many before him, was unable to shake off the unrelenting 22-year-old who took the opening break of the set to move 3-1 ahead.
Murray continued to trouble his opponent and took him to deuce in game seven before Nadal eventually held to move within a game of victory.
The Briton showed commendable spirit to hold under intense pressure and then topped even that to claim break points of his own for only the second time in the match.
Nadal stood firm and then reached a first match point, which an increasingly inspired Murray staved off with an ice-cool drop shot.
Remarkably, the Scot managed to get back on serve by breaking and held to level at 5-5, before two electric games later the tie-break was required.
Murray immediately went two mini-breaks down, then clawed them back, but an acutely angled backhand moved Nadal to 6-4 and the Briton hit a decisive shot into the net as the Spaniard marched on.