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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, September 16, 2020

 
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In his first match since his US Open default, Novak Djokovic cruised through nine of the last 11 games dispatching Salvatore Caruso on Rome's red clay.

Photo credit: @MutuaMadridOpen

Nine days after Novak Djokovic was booted from the US Open, the world No. 1 returned in Rome.

A determined Djokovic put his best foot forward to get right back on track.

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The top-seeded Serbian raced through nine of the last 11 games dispatching Italian wild card Salvatore Caruso 6-3, 6-2 in a clinical clay conquest to cruise into the round of 16.




The four-time Rome champion raised his 2020 record to 27-1 setting up a round-of-16 match against Serbian compatriot Filip Krajinovc.

Krajinovic cruised through the final six straight games bouncing Italian qualifier Marco Cecchinato, who famously upset Djokovic in the 2018 Roland Garros quarterfinals, 6-4, 6-1.

The 17-time Grand Slam champion said following his historic default from the US Open it was vital to play stress-free, drama-free tennis today. 

Mission accomplished. 

"I was actually looking forward to getting an official match as soon as possible after what happened in New York because I feel like the sentiment on court needs to be positive," Djokovic said. "And I need to kind of remove anything that can possibly cause any kind of issues to me if there is something.

"So I didn’t feel I had any mental or emotional blockages or any dramas playing a match today. In contrary, I felt very comfortable training. It was a hot day against Caruso who had already played three matches, clay-court specialist. It was a very good test for me. I was in control of the match, served well, moved well, constructed the point as the clay court demands…everything went well. I’m very pleased."

It was Djokovic’s 51st career victory in Rome—second all-time in the Open Era behind nine-time champion Rafael Nadal who carried 61 career wins into his opener against compatriot Pablo Carreno Busta later today.

The world’s top two are both bidding for a record 36th career Masters crown in Rome this week.

Four-time Rome champion Djokovic, accompanied by long-time coach Marian Vajda, who was not in New York when Djokovic was defaulted after accidently striking a lineswoman in the throat while trailing 5-6 in the opening set of his fourth-round match.

Today, Djokovic looked comfortable and played crisp combinations in a stress-free opener. Djokovic did not face a break point and permitted just six points on his first serve.

“I don't think there will be any consequences for playing well again on the Tour and hitting the ball on a court, obviously during the exchanges,” Djokovic said. “I am in Rome, it is good, I think, to resume so quickly, ten days after the events. The sooner, the better to surpass all this.”

Fresh off saving a match point to topple American Tennys Sandgren yesterday, Caruso stayed in step through the first six games.

The 33-year Djokovic sometimes drove deep returns down the middle denying Caruso access to angles before hammering his second shot into the corners. Djokovic broke for 5-3 then served out the opening set at 30.

The turning point of the second set came in a grueling 11-minute third game. Caruso had multiple game points, but a patient Djokovic kept applying pressure.



At one point Djokovic complained about some chatter in the stands—though no fans are permitted in Rome a few coaches and tournament staffers were scattered among the stands—prompting the chair umpire to ask “which one?”

“Which one? There’s 10 people in the stands,” Djokovic replied.

Spreading the court beautifully, Djokovic hammered a clean forehand winner breaking for a 2-1 second-set lead.

A hopping Caruso tried to pull off the leaping two-handed backhand, Marat Safin-style, but spun the shot into net as Djokovic gained the insurance break for a 5-2 second-set lead before closing a one hour, 24-minute triumph at love.

Though his undefeated run is over, Djokovic says his confidence remains undiminished by his US Open default, which cost him all ranking points he earned in Flushing Meadows as well as a quarter of a million dollars in prize money lost. 

"First of all I don’t consider myself unbeaten in general," Djokovic said. "Everybody is beatable so I know that I didn’t finish the match in US Open and obviously it ended the way it ended.

"Officially it’s the first loss of the year. That’s fine. I really don’t pay attention to that anymore. The important thing is the confidence is still there regardless of the change of surface. I still feel comfortable and am confident about my game. So hopefully I can build that stride more and more as I’m moving deeper in this tournament and prior to Roland Garros, obviously."

World No. 40 Marin Cilic cracked eight aces and won 23 of 26 first-serve points sweeping sixth-seeded David Goffin 6-2, 6-2 in 70 minutes. It was Cilic's second Rome win over Goffin in the last three years as he evened their head-to-head series at four wins apiece.

The 2014 US Open champion will play either Casper Ruud or Italian Lorenzo Sonego in the round of 16.

Italian No. 1 Matteo Berrettini blasted by Argentinian qualifier Federico Coria 7-5, 6-1.

Rome resident Berrettini will play compatriot Stefano Travaglia for a spot in the quarterfinals. Wild card Travaglia squeezed past US Open quarterfinalist Borna Coric 7-6(2), 7-5.


 

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