Rome: Novak Djokovic underlined the growing clay-court threat of Andy Murray barely a fortnight from the French Open after conceding defeat to the British number one in the final of the Rome Masters.
Murray, the number two seed who suffered defeat to Djokovic in last week`s Masters final in Madrid, celebrated his 29th birthday in style with a stylish 6-3, 6-3 victory over the Serbian in one hour, 35 minutes.
It was Murray`s first title in Rome, the third clay-court title of his career after victories on the red dirt in Munich and Madrid last year and, more importantly, comes in timely fashion.
Murray`s powerful serve had Djokovic in trouble on more than one occasion during a rain-hit 1hr 35mins final in which he requested, without success, a break amid fears he would slip and injure his ankle.
But Murray showed progress in other areas, and although Djokovic heads to Paris looking to make amends for last year`s stunning defeat to Swiss Stan Wawrinka, Murray has just become a potentially bigger obstacle to his hopes of a 12th Grand Slam title.
"I think he`s using the court better now. He has more variety in his shots from the baseline play, so obviously he did improve," said Djokovic.
"Winning Madrid and Rome and, you know, a couple of clay-court tournaments the last couple of years proves it.
"At the French Open, the conditions are also a bit quicker, which he likes. He`s been consistently playing well (at Roland Garros) throughout the years, and I`m sure he`s going to be very motivated to do well again.
"He`s going to come in in great form to Paris."
Becoming the first Briton to win in Rome since Patrick Hughes in 1931, it is the first time Murray`s name has been added to a trophy since the birth of his baby daughter.
He said the arrival of his daughter has changed his outlook on life and it will ultimately "have a positive effect on my tennis career".
"The last thing I looked at today before I went on the court was a picture of my daughter," said Murray.
A week after his Madrid defeat, the stars aligned for the Scot thanks to Djokovic coming in fatigued after his late semi-final against Japan`s Kei Nishikori on Saturday.
But Murray stressed: "Every time I go up against him I know I have to play great tennis to win. Any time you beat the best player in the world, it`s a big win."
In Paris, nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal and Swiss pair Wawrinka and Roger Federer will be out to make amends for early exits in Rome.
Seven-time Rome champion Nadal was ousted in the quarters by Djokovic, but two days after Djokovic called beating the Spaniard on clay "the ultimate challenge", Nadal gave little indication he fears for his prospects in Paris.
"I think I am playing well during the whole clay court season," Nadal said after his defeat on Friday.
"And today I was there mentally, fighting for every point, hitting good shots."
Wawrinka, beaten by Juan Monaco in the third round, is set to play in Geneva this week as he struggles for match-winning confidence ahead of the defence of his title in Paris.
There are even bigger doubts on Federer, who won the Roland Garros title just once in 2009, and exited Rome still complaining of a back injury which forced him out in Madrid.
Serena Williams, meanwhile, heads to Paris brimming with confidence ahead of her bid for a third title at Roland Garros that wold take her Grand Slam tally to 22.
The American swept past 21-year-old compatriot Madison Keys 7-6 (7/5), 6-3 to claim her fourth Italian Open victory on Sunday, first title of the season and 70th of her career.
Williams becomes just the fifth woman to achieve such a total in singles after Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf and Margaret Court.
"I`m going to definitely go in there and I feel more calm and I don`t feel stress to, like, have to win," she said.