Victory for birthday-boy Murray provides perfect Paris preparation
There have been times in the last two years when beating Novak Djokovic has appeared to be an all but impossible challenge for Andy Murray, but the Scot's never-say-die attitude was finally rewarded here. His wholly-deserved 6-3, 6-3 victory in the final of the Rome Masters was only his second over the world No 1 in their 14 meetings since the 2013 Wimbledon final.
Just seven days after his latest defeat to the Serb in the final of the Madrid Masters, Murray celebrated his 29th birthday in the best possible fashion by winning only the second clay-court Masters Series title of his career. It was a triumph all the more commendable given that Murray has been dealing with the implications of the split from his coach, Amelie Mauresmo, since the start of last week.
With the French Open starting in seven days' time, Murray will head to Paris as one of the favourites. So far this has been the best clay-court season of his career, his only defeats having come against Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals of last month's Monte Carlo Masters and to Djokovic in the final in Madrid. Until his loss here Djokovic had won six of the last seven Masters Series tournaments and had suffered only two defeats in 2016.
Murray, whose mother Judy was here to watch the final, is only the second British man to have won this historic event, which has long been one of the cornerstones of the European clay-court season. Pat Hughes, who often partnered Fred Perry in doubles, won the title in 1931 and was runner-up a year later.
"Some of the best players of all time have won this event," Murray said afterwards. "There's very few years where there's been a surprise winner. It's mostly great players who have won this event, so I'm very proud to have my name on the trophy."
Of the nine Masters Series tournaments, which form the next tier of events below Grand Slam level, Monte Carlo is now the only one in which Murray has not reached the final.
Murray, who will return to No 2 in the world rankings, had lost all four of his previous clay-court encounters with Djokovic, but if ever the situation was favourable for the Scot when facing his old rival, this was it. Djokovic, who still leads their head-to-head record by 23 wins to 10, had been involved in lengthy physical battles on each of the previous three days while Murray had enjoyed a relatively straightforward passage against Jeremy Chardy, David Goffin and Lucas Pouille.
"Today against Novak is nice," Murray said. "I know he didn't play his best. But there were still some tough moments for me in the second set. I saved the break points well and held strong. And overall it was a great week for me. I didn't lose a set."