PESCHICI (Italy) • Whether he likes it or not, Rafael Nadal will seek to rubber-stamp his status as the favourite for the French Open when he heads to the Rome Masters today looking to underline his return to form on clay.
Men's world No. 1 Andy Murray may have wowed the crowds last year when he bossed Novak Djokovic in the final to claim his maiden win in the Italian capital.
However, a year on from a triumph that suggested he had finally mastered the toughest surface of them all, the 29-year-old is back to square one after a humiliating exit at the hands of unseeded 20-year-old Croat Borna Coric at the Madrid Masters last week.
In contrast, Nadal cruised to a 14-0 win record on clay when he beat Djokovic 6-2, 6-4 in the semi-finals on Saturday.
Ranked fifth in the world, the Spaniard was set to meet Austrian Dominic Thiem in the final early this morning (Singapore time).
"It is a great result," he said. "To win against Novak by that score, you have to be playing very well, otherwise it's impossible."
Yet Nadal, coming back into form after two underwhelming years, was quick to play down suggestions that he is already the favourite for the French Open and, by default, the Rome Masters - a tournament he is looking to win for an eighth time.
"I know that I am playing well. I'm on the right track," said the Spaniard. "It's really important being able to make it to another final in a Masters 1000, especially here in Madrid, at home. Right now I'm not thinking of anything else."
Murray has blamed himself for an early-season slump that has placed huge question marks over his chances of a Rome repeat.
"It's down to me," he said. "Things can turn around quickly in tennis. But you need to have the right sort of ideas, correct ideas, understand why you're in the position you're in."
Despite the straight-sets defeat, Djokovic said: "It was a positive week, a positive experience. I take more positives than negatives into the next week in Rome."
ATP ITALIAN OPEN
Day 1: StarHub Ch201, 5pm