Rome has almost always been a happy hunting ground for Novak Djokovic.
Since his tournament debut in 2007, he has never lost before the quarter-finals in the Italian capital. He has lifted the trophy here four times and has reached the final on each of his last four appearances – even last season when he was going through a rough patch and had to stop for six months due to elbow injury shortly after.
And it seems the city is having its magical effect on him once again, judging from Djokovic’s encouraging 6-1, 6-3 opening round victory over Alexandr Dolgopolov that lasted just 55 minutes.
Coming on the heels of a second round exit to Kyle Edmund last week in Madrid, Djokovic’s win on Monday was just his fourth on clay this season and his seventh on any surface.
“I feel like every day has been a progress, Rome has always been a place where I felt good, where I received a lot of support, where I played well, a lot of great results and today’s match encourages me and gives me reason to believe that it can be a good week for me,” said a confident-looking Djokovic after his win.
“Let’s see, obviously I’d like to go all the way but at the same time, looking at my results I have to be a little bit more modest I would say with the expectations and see where it takes me.”
The Serb, who faces one of two qualifiers in the next round – Nikoloz Basilashvili or Filippo Baldi – admits it’s been a challenging time for him but is somehow grateful that he is getting a chance to be reflective and dig deeper to solve any underlying causes.
“As weird as it sounds for me as well, knowing that I haven’t had a major title in a while, and haven’t played good tennis in a while, I’m still glad that I’m going through this process because it allows me to get to know myself on a deeper level and address certain things that you usually don’t address when anything goes well,” explained the No. 11 seed.
Having split with his entire team a year ago, Djokovic has reunited with two members of that group during the last few weeks as he rehired his ex-coach Marian Vajda and his former fitness trainer Gebhard Phil-Gritsch after a brief period with Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek did not pay dividends. He admits that forming the right team around him has not been easy.
“It’s all a learning curve for me and figuring out the way, how I want to move forward with tennis from this point onwards,” said Djokovic.
“I don’t have yet 100 per cent clarity in terms of what the future will look like but I’m getting there.
“I feel more comfortable on the court, more comfortable with my team, that’s where I’ve made many changes over the last 12 months and that hasn’t really brought a sense of comfort and peace to me because I always had to think, ‘Who’s going to be next to me? Do I need someone? Is that someone going to travel full-time or not? What are we going to work on?’
“New people, new ways of seeing my game and changing things and changing the racquet and all these different things. Changes in general are good when they’re focused on improvement and that’s what I’m focused on and we’ll see where it takes me.”
As far as tennis venues go, there is nowhere like the Foro Italico – a structure that is stunning to look at, yet equally conflicting, considering it has a monument erected at its centre inscribed ‘Mussolini Dux’ in celebration of Fascist Italy.
Rome’s sports complex that was built in the 1930s has an ugly history but now plays host to several events including the ATP/WTA Italian Open.
You’re taken aback when you arrive at the Foro. There are incredible marble statues surrounding the courts, which are ampitheatres offering brilliant views of the tennis and bringing fans ever so close to the players.
Rome’s famous stone pine trees are scattered all over the venue and the colour contrast between the orange clay and the white and green surroundings is a sight for sore eyes.
Fans fill up the stands from the start of qualifying until the very end of the tournament, and the whole place was shaking as they cheered home veteran Roberta Vinci in the last singles match of her career on Monday.
With it being a combined event, getting access to a practice court is a tough ask sometimes and players during the early stages of the tournament often have to share.
— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) May 14, 2018
That results in fun combinations on court, with Maria Sharapova hitting with Rafael Nadal yesterday, and Jelena Ostapenko practicing on the same half of the court as Denis Shapovalov.
Despite the chaos and the craziness of the Italian Open, players and journalists love coming to Rome.
Caroline Wozniacki, the No. 2 seed here, may not be a huge fan of clay, but she is very clear on how her off-court agenda looks like when she’s in the Eternal City.
Asked what some of her must-dos are in Rome each year, Wozniacki quickly replied: “The food. We’re getting a list of the restaurants to try out here, so definitely going to try out Italian cuisine, there’s nothing better than a good pasta in my opinion.”
Can’t argue with that!
The Coliseum and the Vatican are also on her list.
Meanwhile, Juan Martin del Potro was frank when talking about why he can find clay so challenging, despite hailing from a clay-loving nation like Argentina.
“I don’t like to run too much,” confessed Del Potro.
Yet another thing I have in common with the big man!
The 21-year-old stretched his run of consecutive set wins to 18 with his 6-4 6-4 success, which follows on from his triumph on clay at the BMW Open in Munich last week.
Thiem had stunned the seemingly unstoppable Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals but could not repeat the feat against Zverev.
Zverev won the title with a thrillingly aggressive performance, breaking Thiem in his opening service game and not giving the Austrian any chance of a break back as he took the first set.
Zverev continued to serve so strongly that another break on Thiem’s first service game of the second set always looked likely to prove decisive.
Thiem was forced to save two more break points and Zverev – who did not face a single break point on his own serve – served out to take the title in style.
✅ Sin ceder un set
✅ Sin perder un saque
— Mutua Madrid Open (@MutuaMadridOpen) May 13, 2018
Victory makes Zverev only the fifth player, after the so-called ‘big four’ of Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, to win three career ATP Masters 1000 titles.
Triple Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka struggled on his return from a knee injury as he was beaten 6-4 6-4 by American Steve Johnson in the first round of the Rome Masters.
The 33-year-old has missed three months following a knee operation and his defeat to world number 55 Johnson underlined the work he still needs to do to get back the top of the sport.
Twelfth seed Sam Querrey was upset 6-2 7-6 (9/7) by Germany’s Peter Gojowczyk while other first-round winners were Ryan Harrison, Jack Sock and Italian wild card Lorenzo Sonego.