ROME (AP) — Novak Djokovic behaved better Wednesday in his first match since being defaulted from the U.S. Open.
The top-ranked Serb was mostly courteous with the chair umpire and had no interaction with the line judges during a 6-3, 6-2 win over local wild-card entry Salvatore Caruso in his opening match at the Italian Open.
Also Wednesday, nine-time Rome champion Rafael Nadal made a solid return to competition after a seven-month absence by beating U.S. Open semifinalist Pablo Carreño Busta 6-1, 6-1.
Nadal had not played a match since winning a title in Acapulco, Mexico, in February — having decided not to play the U.S. Open over travel concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Djokovic’s performance came in sharp contrast to the scene in New York 10 days ago, when he was disqualified for unintentionally hitting 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.”
Djokovic’s only testy moment came during the third game of the second set, which went to deuce seven times before Djokovic 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 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.”
Nadal was in control from the start and closed out the first set with two straight aces, one out wide and one down the T. The match ended in 73 minutes.
“It was a perfect start for me,” Nadal said. “I played solid with good shots with the forehand and backhand. I didn’t expect to play that well.”
The 19-time Grand Slam champion even found a solution to the ban on service from ball kids by bringing not one but two towels to the back of the court on each changeover — placing one large bath-size version on the box set up for players and the other on an empty line judge’s chair.
In other second-round matches, 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; Rome resident Matteo Berrettini defeated Argentina Federico Coria 7-5, 6-1; and wild-card entry Stefano Travaglia eliminated U.S. Open quarterfinalist Borna Coric 7-6 (2), 7-5 in a solid day for the host nation.
Also, Marin Cilic beat sixth-seeded David Goffin 6-2, 6-2.
In the women’s tournament, top-seeded Simona Halep defeated Italian wild-card entry Jasmine Paolini 6-3, 6-4 and defending champion Karolina Pliskova eliminated fellow Czech player Barbora Strycova 6-3, 6-3.
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.
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