Novak Djokovic heads for Rome this week crediting an unscheduled pause in his claycourt season with helping him clinch a record 29th Masters title.
The world number one defeated long-time rival Andy Murray 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 on Sunday to win the Madrid Masters for a second time.
Djokovic, 28, was forced to rest after losing his first clay outing of the season, going down in Monte Carlo to Czech Jiri Vesely.
But he credited the pause with actually helping his game as he decompressed after winning four early-season titles — Doha, the Australian Open and Indian Wells and Miami Masters.
“I had an amazing opening four months of the season. The early exit in Monte Carlo happened for a reason — I needed some time to really recharge my batteries,” said Djokovic.
The Serb called his three-week stoppage “more than enough to get some freshness and new breath, on the court and get ready for Madrid.
“I came to Madrid early, got used to the conditions, and played a really fantastic tournament that will definitely serve as a great confidence boost before Rome and of course the French Open, where I want to arrive in the best possible shape.”
The world number one captured his fifth trophy of 2016 as he defeated defending champion Murray for the 12th time in their last last 13 matches to stand at an overwhelming 23-9 in their career head-to-head.
Djokovic and Murray — born within a week of each other in May, 1987 — first met in Madrid in a 2006 round of 16 when the event was played on hardcourt.
Djokovic won it in three sets and set up his longstanding rivalry with the Spanish-trained Scot.
“We both strived to be at the top, we’ve known each other since we were 12. I think you can see already in those junior days that both of us have serious intentions to conquer the tennis world and try to make a serious mark.
“I’m very pleased that I have developed a great rivalry with somebody that I’ve known since a very long time and somebody that I have a very good and friendly relationship with on and off the court.”
– Serena returns -Djokovic has defeated Murray in all four of their clay-court meetings as he added the 2016 Madrid trophy to the title he earned five years ago in the Spanish capital.
He has now won 33 of the past 35 sets against top 10 opponents — a stretch of 15 matches. He’s also won five of the past six and 10 of the past 14 Masters titles.
The Belgrade native won 912,900 euros ($1.04 million) on Sunday and victory in Rome will make him the first man to win $100 million in prize money.
Murray will fall to three in the world in the new rankings on Monday behind Roger Federer after failing to defend his title.
“He played unbelievable at the start, sometimes that can happen,” said Murray.
“I don’t think it came down to luck today. He was just a little bit more solid at the end of the match when he needed it.”
In Rome, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Federer have been drawn in the same half.
Djokovic, the 2008, 2011, 2014 and 2015 champion, and seven-time winner Nadal have shared the last 11 Rome titles between them.
In the women’s event, Serena Williams plays just her fourth tournament since last year’s US Open and first on clay this year as the world number one takes top seeding at an event she won in 2002, 2013 and 2014.
The 34-year-old skipped Madrid with flu but hopes to be firing on all cylinders at the Foro Italico where she will also play doubles with sister Venis with one eye on the Rio Olympics.
“I feel pretty good. I wasn’t feeling really good for the past several weeks and even the past few days. But right now I’m better,” said Williams.
Williams has a bye in the singles first round and will meet either Germany’s Anna-Lena Friedsam or Anna Karolina Schmiedlova of Slovakia for a place in the last-16.
Simona Halep is aiming for a clay court double after sweeping to the Madrid Open title last week, dropping just one set en route. The sixth-seeded Romanian could face Williams in the quarter-finals.
In the absence of world number two Agnieszka Radwanska, Germany’s Angelique Kerber takes second seeding looking to recover from her shock first round loss in Madrid to Barbora Strycova.
Australian Open champion Kerber won the Stuttgart title on clay this season but faces a tricky start in Rome against either Jelena Jankovic or Eugenie Bouchard.