Djokovic back to winning ways in Rome


ROME, Italy — Novak Djokovic beat local wild card entry Salvatore Caruso 6-3, 6-2 in his opening match at the Italian Open — his first match back since being defaulted from the U.S. Open for unintentionally striking a line judge in the throat with a ball.

Djokovic said earlier this week that the incident taught him “a big lesson.”

“I was actually looking forward to [playing again] as soon as possible after what happened in New York,” Djokovic 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 favor, 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 said. “I’m very pleased with the way I handled myself in important moments.”

His only testy moment came during the third game of the second set, which went to deuce seven times before he finally broke Caruso’s serve. As the game wore on, Djokovic appeared bothered by crowd noise, even though the Foro Italico is empty of fans this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The only people inside the stadium were coaches and others working at the tournament.

“Which ones?” the umpire asked Djokovic, trying to figure out who was bothering him.

Djokovic replied curtly: “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.”

After winning, Djokovic laughed to himself as he performed his usual on-court celebration, waving his arms toward 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.”

Later, nine-time Rome champion Rafael Nadal was to make his return to competition after a seven-month absence against Pablo Carreno Busta.

Also in the second round, Italian teenager Jannik Sinner upset third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-1, 6-7 (9), 6-2 in a matchup of the last two Next Gen ATP Finals champions; and Rome resident Matteo Berrettini defeated Argentina Federico Coria 7-5, 6-1.

Also, Marin Cilic beat sixth-seeded David Goffin 6-2, 6-2, and Italian wild-card entry Stefano Travaglia eliminated U.S. Open quarterfinalist Borna Coric 7-6 (2), 7-5.

In the women’s tournament, top-seeded Simona Halep beat Italian wild card entry Jasmine Paolini 6-3, 6-4, last year’s semifinalist Kiki Bertens defeated Polona Hercog 6-2, 6-4, and Montenegrin qualifier Danka Kovinic eliminated sixth-seeded Belinda Bencic 6-3, 6-1.

Playing four days after her runner-up finish in the U.S. Open, Victoria Azarenka dispatched 1999 Rome champion Venus Williams 7-6 (7), 6-2 in the day’s only first-round match.

Afterward, Williams consoled herself by taking her dog for a walk around the empty grounds.

This event, which was rescheduled from May because of the pandemic, is an important warm-up for the rescheduled French Open, which starts in 11 days.

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