By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Andy Murray...French Open champion!
That notion would have been dismissed out of hand in years gone by but he will journey to Roland Garros later this month with many backing the Briton to go all the way.
Until last week he had never won a claycourt title.
But, after claiming his first in Munich, he headed to Madrid where he blazed through a tough draw before crushing claycourt king Rafa Nadal in the final.
A year ago Murray managed only six games in a semi-final defeat by Nadal at the French Open as the Spaniard rolled on towards a ninth title at the claycourt grand slam.
He also reached the semis in 2011, so his record in the French capital is not shoddy, but by common consent the red dust was not a surface suited to Murray's game.
Yet something has changed and with Nadal struggling, the 27-year-old could be the man to exploit the Spaniard's troubles, even if Novak Djokovic is now the favorite to win the title.
British bookmaker William Hill shortened Murray's French Open odds from 12-1 to 8-1 after his 6-3 6-2 win over Nadal in Madrid, with Nadal at 9-4 and Djokovic the 5-6 favorite.
Although Nadal's slump has boosted recently-married Murray's chances, his improved form on clay is just as relevant.
The attacking philosophy of his coaching team, Amelie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman, is paying dividends.
Murray now looks more prepared to be the aggressor early in rallies, which on slow clay helps him dictate points.
Forcing opponents further back behind the baseline with early-struck groundstrokes, Murray can pull the trigger on one of the best drop shots in tennis.
His serve, particularly his second delivery, is a revelation.
It's spin and bounce bamboozled Nadal to such an extend that the Mallorcan only managed to win four points on it on Sunday.
Murray will need to sustain his current level to have a chance of winning an unlikely French crown, but his belief is soaring ahead of this week's Rome Masters.
Physically, Murray now looks as strong as at any stage since he underwent back surgery in 2013.
"In the past I struggled physically on the clay, but my team have been brave enough to make some pretty drastic changes and I feel much better because of it," Murray said.
"To win a Masters Series on clay is a step in the right direction."
Murray, however, warned of writing off Nadal.
"That court (in Paris) he's only lost one match in his career...there was enough to suggest that with another couple of weeks preparation he can go all the way."
(Additional reporting by Iain Rogers; Editing by Ed Osmond)