They played "Happy Birthday" for Andy Murray at the end of his opening match in the Rome Masters here last night, but only after David Nalbandian had come close to spoiling the world No 4's day. Murray, who was celebrating his 25th birthday, recovered from 3-1 down in the deciding set before beating Nalbandian 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 after a gruelling encounter that lasted more than two and a half hours.
Murray, who missed last week's Madrid Masters because of a back problem, had not played a match for nearly three weeks and there were times when it showed. With the French Open beginning in 11 days' time, he needs more matches under his belt and said afterwards that he was very happy to have got through his first test at his last tournament before the year's second Grand Slam event. He will now play France's Richard Gasquet or Italy's Paolo Lorenzi tomorrow.
Nalbandian and Murray are arguably the two best current players never to have won a Grand Slam title. Murray has been beaten in three Grand Slam finals and 30-year-old Nalbandian in one, the Argentine having lost to Lleyton Hewitt in his debut year at Wimbledon in 2002. At his peak the current world No 42 was always a threat – he won his first five matches against Roger Federer – although he can no longer sustain those levels.
Nevertheless, Murray saw flashes of the old Nalbandian. He found some lovely angles, driving the Scot out beyond the tramlines, hit some exquisite drop shots and showed a fine touch at the net. There were passages of play in which Murray had the rare experience of being out-thought and out-manoeuvred as Nalbandian won many of the longer exchanges. It was to Murray's credit that he stuck so doggedly to his task and went for his shots when the going got tough.
Murray had taken the first set with something to spare, breaking serve three times. He did not appear in any danger in the second set until he served at 4-5. A service winner and a missed forehand by Nalbandian saw the Scot save two set points, only for a netted forehand on the third to allow the Argentine to level the match.
When a double fault gave Nalbandian an early break in the decider the signs were ominous, but Murray broke back immediately. Nalbandian faltered again at 5-5, though luck was on Murray's side as he hit the top of the net on his third break point and the ball dribbled over the net. When he served for the match Murray saved two break points with a big serve and a bold backhand winner that clipped the outside of a line before converting his first match point when Nalbandian netted a forehand.
Murray, who had been warned by the umpire for a verbal obscenity, said it had been "a tough match physically" and admitted: "I got a bit fortunate, but I went for it and sometimes you make your own luck."
Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, had few problems against Bernard Tomic, winning 6-3, 6-3.