Andy Murray will go into the French Open beginning in nine days' time hoping that a back injury will not harm his chances at the year's second Grand Slam tournament. The 25-year-old Scot revealed after his 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 defeat by Richard Gasquet in the third round of the Rome Masters here yesterday that he has been suffering with a back problem for six months.
"My back was a little bit sore towards the end, but I was expecting that coming into the tournament," Murray said, having had to withdraw from last week's Madrid Masters because of the injury. "I've had it a while, since December. Obviously since then there hasn't been that much time to take an extended break.
"You try to take one at the right moment. With the French Open, Wimbledon, Olympics and US Open there's not much time to take a rest. Obviously now is the best time to do it, so hopefully by the time the French Open comes around I'll be in peak condition. That's the goal."
Murray has brushed aside Frenchmen like croissant crumbs from his breakfast table in recent years – he had won 40 of his previous 41 matches against French opponents – and in Gasquet was facing an opponent whose mental and physical strength have often been called into question. Indeed, Murray had twice beaten him in Grand Slam tournaments after losing the first two sets. This time, however, it was the world No 22 who finished the stronger and played the big points particularly well.
The match was played in a new temporary stadium in a far-flung corner of the Foro Italico, almost in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium. Conditions were not easy, with a swirling wind and dark shadows creeping across the court on a day of glorious sunshine. There were several bad bounces, spectators and stewards were frequently on the move, distracting the players, and an angry Gasquet had to stop serving twice in one game as an ice cream salesman ignored requests to sit down.
Murray's back had felt sore after his first match against David Nalbandian, which lasted two hours and 37 minutes, and this time he was on court for just under three hours. The first set alone took 84 minutes. Murray had chances to wrap it up earlier, but converted only one of 13 break points. He hit two double faults in failing to serve out for the set at 5-3 but won the tie-break 7-1.
In the past Gasquet might have been expected to fade quickly thereafter, but the Frenchman upped his game as Murray faded, the Scot dropping his serve three times in the second set. Murray failed to take four break points at 1-1 in the decider and from 2-2 Gasquet won four games in a row to secure his passage.
Rafael Nadal eased to a 6-1, 6-1 victory over Marcel Granollers, but Novak Djokovic struggled in the windy conditions before overcoming Juan Monaco 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. The world No 1 made 22 unforced errors in the first set, at the end of which he smashed his racket in frustration. From 1-2 in the second set, however, Djokovic recovered his poise, winning 20 of the next 24 points to take control of the match.
In the women's competition Venus Williams beat Sam Stosur, the world No 5, 6-4, 6-3, her best result since her comeback. She now faces Maria Sharapova, who beat Ana Ivanovic 7-5, 6-3.
* Elena Baltacha, the British No 1, beat Poland's Urszula Radwanska 6-1, 6-4 to reach the quarter-finals of the Prague Open, in which she will meet Latvia's Anastasija Sevastova today.