The two players who have won the most Masters1000 titles between them were in action at the Rome stop for the first time having received byes in their opening matches.
It was a perfect start for me. It was solid, good shots on the forehand and backhand. I didn’t expect to play that well Rafa Nadal
Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal, both equal on 35 at this level (one below grand slam status) are the clear favourites to pick up the Rome title and pull ahead in the ‘race for the most’!
Nadal, a 9-time champion in Rome, was making his first appearance on the pro court in seven months having decided to absent himself from the American hard-court swing which heralded the return of the sport following the tours’ suspension as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The world number two had not played since winning in Acapulco at the end of February and because of those coronavirus concerns which prevented him from travelling across the Atlantic, didn’t defend his US Open title.
His first match was against countryman Pablo Carreno Busta who did make the trip to the US and reached the last four of the Open but on his return to European clay, found himself completely out of touch when faced with the King of Clay himself.
Nadal cruised through 6-1 6-1 losing just 8 points on his serve in just 73-minutes.
“It was a perfect start for me. It was solid, good shots on the forehand and backhand. I didn’t expect to play that well,” said Nadal, the second seed who has a 62-2 record in the Eternal City.
“Maybe Pablo was a little bit tired from a great tournament there in New York, but thinking about myself, I played a very solid match and very serious and doing a lot of things very well. So very happy.”
Nadal who is preparing to extend his record of 12 titles at the French Open later this month, believes the switch from the hard surfaces to clay won’t affect the players who have two weeks to adjust.
“If Roland Garros is this week, maybe yes, (but) Roland Garros is two weeks away so I don’t think so.”
“Of course I have to improve things. But the things that I have to improve, the only way to improve is to keep practicing with the right attitude and intensity and to spend hours on the competition matches.
“And today have been a positive start for me. This year, of course situation is different, but I gonna keep trying my best,” said Nadal admitting he didn’t pick up a racket during the shutdown.
“Then I started to practice on hard for a while. And then I switch to clay. But I really do not remember when, honestly, but quite a lot. But I have been practicing on and off not every single day since the beginning – I had to come back very slow.
“After two months without touching a racket, I needed to make things step by step, trying to avoid injuries.
“And of course after the lockdown, the body had some issues, too. Just trying to do the things the best way possible to come back when I felt ready.”
Nadal, who has a 62-6 record in Rome, is attempting to capture a record 36th ATP Masters 1000 title, which would break a tie with four-time former Rome champion Djokovic.
The top seeded Novak Djokovic played his first match since his discomfiting US Open default last week and looked to be on his best behaviour as he took out the Italian wild card Salvatore Caruso 6-2 6-3.
“It was a very good test for me. I’m very pleased with the way I handled myself in important moments,” said Djokovic who has extended his seasons wins to 27 for the loss of just one match.
“I was in control of the match. Served well when I needed to come up with a big serve and moved well. I constructed the points as the clay courts demand, because it’s obviously completely different surface in terms of building the point tactically. Everything went well. I’m very pleased.”
Referring to last week’s incident, Djokovic said it had taught him “a big lesson.”
“I was actually looking forward to [playing again] as soon as possible after what happened in New York,” the Serb said.
“Because I feel like the sentiment on the court needs to be positive, and I need to kind of remove anything that can possibly cause any kind of issues to me – if there is something.”
When the umpire came down to inspect a ball mark on the red clay early in the first set and made an overrule in Caruso’s favour, Djokovic just replied, “Yup,” and rubbed out the mark with his red sneaker.
When Caruso impressed him – the Italian hit 13 winners to Djokovic’s 12 – Djokovic said, “Bravo.”
“It was a hot day against Caruso who already played three matches here, a clay court specialist. It was a very good test for me,” Djokovic added.
“I’m very pleased with the way I handled myself in important moments.”
Djokovic’s patience was tested in the third game of the second set when he eventually broke Caruso after seven deuces but not before complaining to the umpire about the noise in the stadium even though it was empty of spectators banned because of the pandemic.
The umpire politely enquired who, among the coaches and workers scattered about the stadium, was irritating him to which he received a curt response of “There’s 10 people in the stands.”
Afterward, Djokovic explained: “It was very, very quiet, which is very unusual to what we are used to here in Rome, which has one of the loudest and most energetic crowd atmospheres on the tour. But there was somebody in the corridor of the stadium that was talking – about five, six people.”
And despite the fact that there were no fans, Djokovic after securing his win, turned to the empty stadium and performed his now traditional and cringing celebration routine of throwing his heart out to all four sides of the Campo Centrale stands.
“I miss the crowd,” he said. “Italy has a nice tennis tradition and this tournament has been around for many years. It’s a little strange.”
Djokovic, a four-time Rome champion, next faces fellow Serb Filip Krajinovic, who beat Italian qualifier Marco Cecchinato 6-4 6-1.
“Filip is someone that I am very close to for many years. I was trying to kind of mentor him in the last seven, eight years,” Djokovic said. “I’m just very, very pleased that he’s doing well.”
In other second-round matches, Italian teenager Jannik Sinner stunned third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-1 6-7(9) 6-2 in what was the upset of the day.
Tsitsipas nearly made a miraculous recovery before losing to the 19-year-old Sinner as he clawed his way back in the second when trailing by a set and 5-2 to force the decider.
Sinner though regrouped to record his first victory over a top ten player.
“He is obviously a very experienced player,” said Sinner. “I played against him last year here in Rome. I just wanted to play my game and move better. In the beginning, I was feeling great and I knew it was his first match on clay. When I served for the match, I hit one double fault and the tie-break could have gone either way. I tried to start strongly in the third set.”
Rome resident Matteo Berrettini defeated Argentina Federico Coria 7-5 6-1 and wildcard entry Stefano Travaglia eliminated US Open quarterfinalist Borna Coric 7-6(2) 7-5 while Marin Cilic beat sixth-seeded David Goffin 6-2 6-2.