The skies opened over the Foro Italico here yesterday after a week of unbroken sunshine, but it would have taken more than a shower to dampen Andy Murray's spirits as the world No 4 looked ahead to the start of the French Open next Sunday.
Although Murray was disappointed by his failure to end Novak Djokovic's six-month unbeaten sequence in Saturday's semi-finals of the Rome Masters, his exhilarating performance capped the best clay-court run of his career and will send him into the year's second Grand Slam tournament with renewed confidence.
As the two finalists waited for the rain to clear before they could contest their fourth Masters Series final of the season – Djokovic eventually extended his winning sequence to 39 matches by beating Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-4 – Murray was spending his 24th birthday training in the Italian capital before heading home. His reaction to his 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 defeat the previous evening was typical. Despite looking the stronger player after a superb three-hour contest, Murray said he would focus on improving his durability as he prepares for matches over the best of five sets at the French Open.
Reaching the semi-finals at two of the year's three clay-court Masters Series events has strengthened Murray's belief that he can live with the very best on what has been his most challenging surface. Having become the first player to take a set off Nadal on clay this year in Monte Carlo, despite having to deal with an elbow injury, Murray came desperately close here to ending Djokovic's run.
The Serb, striking the ball with all the confidence of a man who had won his previous 37 matches, had threatened to blast Murray off the court in the first set, but the Scot responded admirably, only to hit two double faults when he served for the match at 5-4 in the third set.
An exhausted Djokovic summoned up one last effort to win the deciding tie-break 7-2. Murray put his failure to close out the victory down to a shortage of match practice but took plenty if positives from his performance.
"I can win the French if I play my best and get myself prepared mentally and physically," he said. "I feel like I'm moving better than I have in the past on clay and I've got the right combination of how to play.
"There are a few things I can do better. I didn't start my last two matches particularly well and that's something I need to improve going into the French, but I definitely give myself a chance if I play like that."
Freshening up his coaching team by turning to the Australian Darren Cahill as an interim arrangement has clearly had a positive effect on Murray, who had suffered an alarming slump after his victory over David Ferrer in the semi-finals of the Australian Open in January.
The Scot lost his next four matches without winning a set and did not win again until his first tournament of the clay-court season in Monte Carlo last month. "The 'crisis' that I was supposedly in is over," Murray said. "I think your tennis never goes. I've been in the top four players in the world for four, five years now. I was on a bad run and mentally I wasn't in the best place. That was the difference. My tennis is never going to go away when I have the intensity and the right attitude like I've had in the last few weeks."
Last night, in a final of high quality, Djokovic and Nadal traded heavy groundstrokes from the back of the court with little to separate the top two in the world. But it was Djokovic who struck first to break for a 5-3 lead when the Spaniard shanked a backhand long. Nadal struck back immediately but he could not stave off Djokovic's charge and the Serbian broke again to wrap up the set.
The momentum continued in the second with Djokovic claiming the Nadal serve to go 2-0 up. But again he conceded the break in the next game. The match remained on serve until 4-5 on the Nadal delivery. Djokovic upped his game to move 40-0 up and, after Nadal had saved the first three match points, the Serbian won it on his fourth by putting away a forehand when a Nadal groundstroke sat up nicely after hitting the net.