Rome Masters: Murray marks birthday by beating Djokovic for first Rome title

Andy Murray ends his losing streak against Novak Djokovic to win his first Rome Masters on 29th birthday

After reaching the final of the glamorous and prestigious Rome Masters for the first time at his 11th consecutive attempt, Andy Murray hit the nail on the head.

“I don’t remember winning any matches on my birthday, which isn’t a great sign. Hopefully, tomorrow that will change.”

Yes, the Rome tournament has always been the one that coincided with the Briton’s birthday, and only once in all those years had he made the semi-finals—and no further.

While still 18—just—and ranked 44, he lost in the first round of his first Rome. It was the same the next year, and by 2011, he had won only two matches, and one of those was by retirement.

Then in 2011, he met for the first and only time in Rome the man he had known since junior days, the man born just a week later than himself, the man who went on to dominate the rankings and lead the Masters title record-book with 29 titles: Novak Djokovic.

On that semi-final day, Murray would age from 23 to 24 as the match reached its remarkable climax, in one of his finest clay matches. He was ranked No4 in the world, had half a dozen Masters titles to his name—all on hard courts—and he had reached three Grand Slam finals—also all on hard courts. But he was searching for his first clay court title, indeed his first clay court final.

This, though, was the year that Djokovic was about to take the season by storm—10 titles, three of them Majors—but on that night, it was very nearly Murray who took the honours. He served for the match in the final set, only to be broken and then lose in the concluding tiebreak.

Those three hours may not have been how Murray would choose to celebrate a birthday, but they suggested that he was within touching distance of a clay title.

Exactly two years later, on his 26th birthday, he opened his account in Rome as a Grand Slam and Olympic champion, No2 in the world, and still without a clay-court final. And this birthday would leave a still more bitter taste in the Briton’s mouth. He was forced to retire in his opening match against Marcel Granollers with what was becoming a chronic back condition, and he would go on to pull out of the French Open too.

However after back surgery at the end of the year to remedy the pain that had always been exacerbated on the sliding, twisting clay surfaces, Murray went on to record not just a quarter-final run in 2014 but his solitary birthday match-win, against Jurgen Melzer. He even took Rafael Nadal to three sets, but it would not be until last year that he finally won his clay title, and then it was two on the bounce.

What’s more, that form stayed with him into 2016 with a semi run in Monte-Carlo and a final finish in Madrid, beating Nadal in the process.

Indeed Murray’s 27-3 record on clay since the start of last year put him top of the win-loss index for the last 52 weeks as he headed into his first Rome final—on his 29th birthday.

But his problem would be the same one he faced in 2011: the defending and four-time champion Djokovic. For apart from Murray’s Montreal title last summer, the Serb had won their last 13 matches, and the Serb was now in the midst of a wave of form to match that 2011 season.

Already Djokovic had five titles this year after winning 11 last year, and just two of the 16 below Grand Slam or Masters level. He was on a 37-2 run since the start of 2016, and on a career tally of 38-5 in Rome—and he beat Murray in the Madrid final just last week, though it took him three sets to do so.

In Rome, though, it was Djokovic who drew, and beat, Nadal, while in Madrid it had been Murray. Did the draw make the difference, or Djokovic’s tough three-setter the night before, or the heavy, damp conditions? Whatever the combination of circumstances, Murray looked the stronger, more aggressive, more confident man almost from the first ball.

He opened with a love hold, pummelled Djokovic though three break points and four deuces in the second game—though over-reached from the baseline as Djokovic held off the attack—and then held to love again. Murray would prove throughout the match what an improved element his serve has become: In the first set, he dropped just five points altogether and in the second he won 20 of 26 first serves.

Murray did not pass up his chance in the fourth game, breaking from 15-40 up, and Djokovic hurled his racket to the ground in exasperation. His mood was no better after Murray held to 15, having won 17 of their 23 baseline rallies as the Briton peppered each sideline in turn and switched direction from both forehand and backhand wings to test the Serbian footwork.

It was raining steadily and the distractions in the crowd were many, yet Murray kept admirable focus to hold for 5-2 and served out the set after 45 minutes with a drop-shot winner, 6-3.

Now Djokovic responded, has he had done from a set down twice this week already. He threw in some pitch-perfect drop shots to hold for 2-1 before imploring the umpire to call a temporary halt for the conditions—to no avail.

Despite his unease, he had two chances to break Murray in the fourth, but the Briton put in two great serves to hold and broke Djokovic in reply with a blistering return-of-serve and forehand one-two finish.

It set the pattern for the remainder of the match: Just when Djokovic seemed to find some rhythm, Murray replied with his own fine chases to the net, some brilliant defence, and some timely and accurate serving. Appropriately, then, it was just such a combination that sealed the break and the match, 6-3: a wide backhand chase to slot a winner down the line, Murray’s 24th winner of the match.

In traditional ATP style, Murray was presented with a birthday cake on court, but it will certainly be the very elegant silver cup that makes the headlines tomorrow. For Murray has become the first Briton since 1931 to win this famous tournament, and he even managed a few words in Italian to thank the crowds as he lifted aloft his 12th Masters trophy.

Murray did not need this victory to seal the No2 ranking for the first time at the French Open next week, though that will be a valuable addition to the week, for he cannot now meet Djokovic before the final. And in this kind of form, Murray will surely be more hopeful than ever of taking to court on the final day at Roland Garros for the first time.

And whoever is on the other side of the net, he has certainly thrown down his gauntlet onto the red stuff.

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