ROME: Novak Djokovic fought his way into the third round of the Italian Open on Friday, beating Tomas Etcheverry 7-5 (7/6), 6-2 in a surprisingly tight encounter.
A six-time winner in Rome, the world number one was made to work by the 61st-ranked Argentine, prevailing in one hour, 51 minutes to set up a third-round clash with Grigor Dimitrov who beat Stan Wawrinka.
Novak Djokovic, a 22-time Grand Slam title winner, has not been knocked out of an ATP Tour event at the first attempt since the Monte Carlo Masters last year.
Still nursing an injury to his right elbow he had to battle his way past Etcheverry, winning the first set via a tie-break before finally ensuring passage into the next round.
“I’ve said before that this surface requires more time for me than maybe for other players to get myself to a good level, move well and hit the ball well. Rome has always been a tournament that I need for Roland Garros,” said Djokovic who was plagued by 21 unforced errors in the opener.
Djokovic appeared unwell at 5-5 in the first set and took a tablet in the changeover.
“You act like you’re 100 per cent,” Djokovic said.
“Most of the times I guess you’re not, but you want to show your opponent that you’re out there trying to fight for every ball. I guess that’s what happened, it’s kind of cat-and-mouse always on clay.”
Novak Djokovic, 35, has made 12 finals in Rome and said Thursday that he was feeling good ahead of the tournament despite missing last week’s Madrid Masters.
Wearing an elbow brace he made a slow start, dropping his serve in the first game and struggling to deal with the Argentine’s powerful shots.
The first set hinged on a scrappy game six, in which Djokovic broke to level the scores following a battle at deuce.
From there, the set went with the serve until Djokovic won the final four points in the tie-break to take the lead.
Novak Djokovic then kicked up a level, breaking serve in the first and seventh games of the second set to give the match a more straightforward look than Etcheverry’s performance deserved.
World number seven Holger Rune marked his Rome debut with a 6-3, 6-3 win against Arthur Fils of France.
“He made it tough. He’s young, younger than me. It feels kind of crazy because I think this is the second time in my life I’m playing someone that’s younger,” said 20-year-old Rune.
World number one Iga Swiatek started her bid to win a third straight Italian Open WTA title by demolishing Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-0, 6-0.
Losing finalist in Madrid last weekend, Swiatek looked in great form in the tournament she won last year before going on to blitz the French Open even though she is shaking off a rib injury suffered at Indian Wells.
“I still may feel some discomfort, but it is really, really low. Even when I withdrew from Miami, the pain was low. It was just the risk of getting it worse that stopped me,” Swiatek told reporters.
The Pole’s path to another Rome title opened up on Thursday when world number two and third-ranked Jessica Pegula were knocked out.
Swiatek faces Lesia Tsurenko in the Italian Open last 32 after extending her winning streak in the Italian capital to 12 matches.
Last year’s losing finalist, fourth seed Ons Jabeur fell 6-1, 6-4 to Paula Badosa.
The 28-year-old Jabeur has had calf problems in recent weeks, an injury which caused her to retire in the semi-finals at Stuttgart and not defend her Madrid title.
Badosa will face world number 27 Marta Kostyuk in the third round.
Earlier, Jannik Sinner cruised into the men’s last 32 with a straight-sets win over Thanasi Kokkinakis, 6-1, 6-4.
World number eight Sinner took one hour, 18 minutes to deal with the Australian qualifier and will play Russian Alexander Shevchenko, who beat Argentine Sebastian Baez 6-3, 6-4.
Rome has not seen an Italian tournament winner since Adriano Panatta in 1976.
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