A few weeks ago Novak Djokovic will have seen a resurgent Rafael Nadal as the biggest threat to his dream of a first French Open title. Not any more he won’t.
That was after the Monte Carlo Open but, with the rarity of three different winners from the three Masters level clay court tournaments, Andy Murray now represents his most clear and present danger.
On his 29th birthday Murray made up the trinity with an outstanding performance to win his first Italian Open final, beating the sometimes testy world No 1 6-3, 6-3 in an hour and 35 minutes.
The Scot, who began the week by revealing his split from coach Amelie Mauresmo, was a picture of Zen-like calm, even when clinching a remarkable match point as he hit a backhand from the side wall of the Foro Italico’s stadium court.
It was only Murray’s second win over his old rival in fourteen attempts since the 2013 Wimbledon final. It was also his first as a father, and the last thing he did before walking on court was glance at a picture of daughter Sophia.
‘I think being a parent is just going to have a positive effect on my tennis and the rest of my career,’ he said after becoming the first British man to win here since Pat Hughes in 1931. ‘It gives me a bit of extra motivation, something more to play for.
‘I knew that I was going to be fresh because I’d had quick matches, and that for Novak it has been a tough few days.
‘Some of the best players of all time have won this event. There’s very few years where there’s been a surprise winner,
‘So I’m very proud to have my name on the trophy. Today against Novak is nice. He didn’t play his best today but there were still some tough moments for me in the second set. I saved the break points well and held strong.
‘Overall it was a great week for me. I didn’t lose a set.
‘Winning a clay court Masters Series, last year I certainly didn’t think I’d be doing that multiple times over and giving myself a lot of opportunities to do that.
‘My coaches always said to me that clay should be my best surface, but it took me a long time probably to gain a little bit of confidence. But also I did make huge improvements in my movement.
‘That has sort of changed my mentality when I go on the court. I don’t feel like I’m off-balance anymore, and I feel like I can chase most balls down. And my back feels way, way better than it did a few years ago.’
Djokovic was contrastingly tetchy throughout, unhappy about the heavy state of the court in rainy conditions that may have brought to Murray’s mind fond memories of Scotland.
The Serb had a rant at umpire Damian Steiner at 3-4 down in the second set, although by then it had actually started to clear up.
Of course one factor that will be different in Paris is that there will not be daily or nightly back-to-back matches, something that clearly stressed his mind and body here.
Djokovic had been detained for three hours until past 11pm on Saturday night by Kei Nishikori, although he has proved the master of rebounding many times in the past.
Afterwards he called for ‘fair scheduling’ of semi-finals around the tour and has a valid point. He was also critical of the heavy surface, although in that instance it was very much the same for both players.
‘It was very muddy behind the baseline. In three games I literally, you know, could have twisted my ankle two or three times,’ complained Djokovic.
‘I asked him is it necessary that somebody gets injured? To me it’s ridiculous that the chair umpire doesn’t wear tennis shoes and wears the casual shoes, comes out and slides on the line and says, okay, the court is good.
‘I had a long couple of weeks, especially last couple of days. I knew it’s going to be very hard for me, an uphill ride against Andy today, who was playing throughout the week on a very high level.
‘I’m not taking anything away from Andy’s win. On the contrary, I think he deserved to win and deserved to win the entire tournament, because he was the was the player that played in the best form.’ ‘I think he’s using the court better now. He has more variety in his shots from the baseline play, so obviously he did improve.’
Having taken advantage of another slow start from the Serb and gone 4-1 up with rifling forehands and impeccable serving that barely gave his opponent a look-in during the first set, Djokovic predictably revived in the second