Rome: 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 Monday looking to underline his return to form on clay.
World number one Andy Murray may have wowed the crowds at the Foro Italico last year when he bossed Serbia's four-time champion Novak Djokovic in the final to claim his maiden win in the Italian capital.
But what was just the Scot's third title on the surface, following wins in Munich and Madrid, has never looked further away.
A year on from a triumph that suggested Murray had finally mastered the toughest surface of them all, the 29-year-old is back to square one after a humiliating exit to unseeded 20-year-old Croat Borna Coric before the business end of the Madrid Masters began earlier this week.
By contrast, Nadal cruised to a 14-0 win record on clay when he ousted long-time rival Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals on Saturday.
Currently ranked fifth in the world, the Spaniard will now meet Austrian Dominic Thiem in the final.
"It is a great result," said Nadal. "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 he was already the favourite for the French Open and, by default, the Rome Masters -- a tournament he is looking to win for the eighth time.
"I know that I am playing well. I'm on the right track," added Nadal.
"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."
Given his past record in Rome -- Nadal won seven titles from 2005 to 2013 -- the 30-year-old Spaniard can look forward to a rousing reception from the notoriously noisy Rome crowd.
Even more so if he comes up against Murray, who, to his credit, has blamed himself for an early-season slump in form that has placed huge question marks over his chances of a Rome repeat.
"There's no blame on anyone, it's down to me," Murray said after an error-strewn performance against Coric.
But Murray, who said he has been talking to part-time coach Ivan Lendl "every Monday", is hoping fortune turns in his favour.
"Things can turn around quickly in tennis. Borna lost in the qualifying here a few days ago. Now he's in the quarters playing very good tennis. Things can change fast," he added.
"But you need to have the right sort of ideas, correct ideas, understand why you're in the position you're in. Hopefully I can do that with my team and play better in Rome and Roland Garros."
For the third straight clay-court Masters 1000 event, Djokovic and Nadal have been drawn in the same half.
Despite a straight sets defeat to Nadal that suggested the Serb, too, has yet to reach his peak, Djokovic remains buoyed.
"It was a positive week, a positive experience. I take more positives than negatives into the next week in Rome," said Djokovic, the second seed in Rome.
"As I go along, I hope to continue getting better and getting stronger."
In the absence of world number one Serena Williams, who is pregnant, top seed Angelique Kerber has been drawn in the same quarter as Russian Maria Sharapova, who will play Christina McHale in the first round, and Madrid Open winner Simona Halep.
Sharapova returns to the event for the first time since returning from a 15-month doping ban.
Updated Date: May 14, 2017 15:26 PM