ANDY Murray will become the first British man to break into the top three of the world rankings later this month.
The 21-year-old Scot was guaranteed to overtake Novak Djokovic as the No3 player in the ATP standings on 11 May after the Serb failed to defend his Rome Masters title against Rafael Nadal yesterday.
No British man had climbed higher than fourth since the inception of computerised rankings in 1973, with Murray sharing the record with the now retired Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski in the 52-week rolling standings.
Murray's rise caps an incredible nine months for the British No 1, who has won six titles since last August, including three Masters crowns. Although Murray lost his opening match in Rome last week, it was one of only five defeats he has suffered this season.
The 2008 US Open runner-up returns to action at the Madrid Masters in just over a week.
Nadal extended his winning streak on clay to 30 matches with a 7-6, 6-2 victory over Djokovic.
Nadal broke an open era tie with Thomas Muster, who won Rome titles in 1990, 1995 and 1996. Jaroslav Drobny and Martin Mulligan also each won three titles before the open era.
Rome is a key warm-up for the French Open, which begins in three weeks.
The match was a far cry from the Monte Carlo final two weeks ago, when Djokovic became the only player to take a set from Nadal on clay this year.
Nadal broke serve in the opening game of the match but Djokovic had his chances in the first set before losing control for good in the tie-break, sending a weak backhand drop-shot attempt into the net on Nadal's third set point. Djokovic then double-faulted to hand Nadal a 4-2 lead in the second set.
The match was played in alternating conditions, with wind swirling around inside the stadium when the sun disappeared for periods behind clouds.
Djokovic started off with a series of errors as he tried to flatten out his groundstrokes and go for winners to end rallies early. As the match wore on, he waited longer in rallies before going for winners with approach shots to the corners.
Still, Djokovic appeared unsure of his tactics at times. On one occasion in the first set, he attempted a serve-and-volley, but then retreated and watched Nadal's winner sail by him, out of reach.
Nadal uncharacteristically missed a few forehands at the end of the first set to let Djokovic pull even at 5-5, but Djokovic then missed a routine backhand into the net to drop his serve again and smashed his racket onto the clay, drawing a racket abuse warning from the chair umpire.
Djokovic led 23-19 in winners but committed 40 unforced errors to Nadal's 22, mostly with his backhand. Nadal improved his Rome record to 22-1. His won his first two titles in 2005 and 2006 with victories over Guillermo Coria and Roger Federer, respectively, then beat Fernando Gonzalez in straight sets in 2007.
Nadal improved his tour-best record to 38-3 this year, winning five of the eight tournaments he's entered. It was Nadal's 15th Masters Series title, one more than Roger Federer and two shy of Andre Agassi's record of 17.
"It's been an incredible week for me," said Nadal.
"Having won in Monte Carlo and then in Barcelona, I couldn't have asked for anything better.
"You think to yourself that it's impossible to repeat what I achieved last year but so far I've done it."