Novak Djokovic has taken the first step towards a sixth Rome title with a 6-3 6-2 win over Aslan Karatsev in his opening match at the Italian Open.
Djokovic, who is still working towards his best form, showed vintage scrambling abilities late in the first set on Tuesday. He ran down one shot near the net post then sprinted back across the net to dig out a low backhand volley winner.
It was the type of point that Djokovic pulled off day after day last year when he came within one match of completing a calendar-year Grand Slam — sweeping all four major titles in the same year.
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Playing on a court that is one of his favourites, Djokovic celebrated the point by making a gesture with his hands that urged the Campo Centrale crowd to applaud even louder — bringing many fans to their feet.
“You always hope you can play some exciting and attractive points and come out as a winner of those points and celebrate with the crowd,” Djokovic said.
“That’s what the crowd is looking for — they’re looking for energy, excitement, fight and they want to see some good tennis.”
Djokovic needs to reach the semi-finals to stay No.1, otherwise Russia’s Daniil Medvedev will take the top spot and the top seed at the French Open, which starts in 12 days.
Djokovic missed several key tournaments earlier this year because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19, which led to him being deported from Australia ahead of the year’s first grand slam.
Still seeking his first title of 2022, Djokovic lost the Serbia Open final to Andrey Rublev then was beaten by 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz in the Madrid Open semis last weekend.
Djokovic will next face either three-time grand slam champion Stan Wawrinka or compatriot Laslo Djere in the last 16.
Elsewhere on the red clay courts of the Foro Italico, big-serving John Isner eliminated Miami Open semi-finalist Francisco Cerundolo 6-4 6-3 and will next face 10-time Rome champion Rafael Nadal.
“This is a very cool opportunity for me,” Isner said.
“At 37, I get another crack at one of the all-time greats.”
Isner’s doubles teammate Diego Schwartzman, a finalist in the Italian capital two years ago, saved two match points before eliminating Miomir Kecmanovic 6-2 3-6 7-6 (7-3).
Filip Krajinovic knocked out sixth seed Andrey Rublev 6-2 6-4 and David Goffin upset 11th seed Hubert Hurkacz 7-6 (10-8) 7-6 (7-2).
Alex de Minaur, the only Australian in the draw, will play American Tommy Paul on Wednesday.