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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Serena Williams

Five-time champion Novak Djokovic defeated Taylor Fritz to raise his Rome record to 56-9.

Photo credit: Internazionali BNL d'Italia 

Novak Djokovic speaks Italian and showed fluency managing a myriad of challenges on Rome's red clay.

Djokovic withstood dreary drizzle, a three-hour rain delay and a dangerous Taylor Fritz in his Internazionali BNL d'Italia opener.

The reigning Rome champion mastered all those elements in a 6-3, 7-6(5) victory.

The match was a rematch of Djokovic's five-set win at the Australian Open and though he broke Fritz in his opening service game of both sets, Djokovic was challenged by the conditions, which grew faster after the lengthy rain delay.

"Well, it was a very strange match with strange conditions," Djokovic said. "Obviously playing under the rain non-stop for almost two full sets, it is challenging for both me and him.

"I thought that I had an advantage there because the conditions were slower which allows me to return his serves, because he's got really big serves. So I kind of kept the match under my control for most part of the two sets, then served for the match. Very sloppy service game. He played well, made a great passing shot to come back.

"I was stressed out in the end obviously, but I think it was the right call to stop the match."

Djokovic raised his Rome record to 56-9. The five-time champion will face either British left-hander Cameron Norrie or Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who defeated Grigor Dimitrov, next.

In his first match since falling to Aslan Karatsev in his hometown tournament in Belgrade last month, Djokovic won 76 percent of his first serve points and saved five of seven break points in a one hour, 39-minute victory that included a three-hour rain delay with Fritz serving at 5-all in the second set.

"When I came back, I thought we were quite even actually till the last point," Djokovic said. "I'm glad that I managed to finish off this match in straight sets. I know I can play better, and I'm going to work tomorrow trying to make sure I do that in two days."

The top seed won the toss, elected to serve and stamped a solid hold. Djokovic wasted no time pushing Fritz into pursuit mode. Carving out the drop shot to drag the American forward, the defending champ froze Fritz with a rainbow lob for double break point. When Fritz pasted a backhand into net, Djokovic had the early break.

As a persistent drizzle turned the red dirt into a slog and fluffed up the Dunlop balls, Djokovic fought off a pair of break points holding in the seventh game. The Serbian spread the court beautifully squelching the uprising to hold for 5-2 after 28 minutes.

Luring the American forward again, Djokovic caught a break when Fritz bungled a routine smash for love-30. Fritz dug out of the deficit with a fine deep smash rallying to hold in the eighth game.

Sliding a serve down the middle, Djokovic danced around a backhand and spun a forehand down the line closing the 36-minute opener. Djokovic won half the points played on Fritz's first serve (7 of 14) in the opener and took a seat as the rain intensified a bit.

The Australian Open champion streaked through eight of the first nine points of the second set breaking at love for 1-0 when Fritz missed the mark with a backhand. 

Slipping and sliding around the dirt, Fritz found his footing to play one of his best point of the match. Driving a forehand behind the top seed for break point, Fritz broke for the first time on a Djokovic error to even after four games.

The 18-time Grand Slam champion can blend topspin and sidespin on his forehand to push opponents to the perimeter. Djokovic spread the court with a diagonal forehand, stepped inside the baseline and slashed a forehand winner down the line scoring his third service break for 3-2.

Driving through his forehand with damaging intent, Djokovic confirmed the break at 15 for 4-2.

Purple Nike shirt saturated with sweat and rain and sticking to his skin, Fritz kept firing away from the baseline earning three break points in the eighth game only to see Djokovic deny all three.

Serving for the match, Djokovic was eager to beat the rain and his opening opponent. Fritz had other ideas.

Leaning low, Fritz flashed a running backhand pass smack off the baseline breaking for 5-all as festering frustration over lost serve and soggy conditions erupted in Djokovic.

"How much more you want to play!" Djokovic screamed at the chair umpire while standing in the drizzle behind the baseline. "I asked you three times you didn't check anything!" 

"Now it's getting harder, I'm watching the court," the umpire replied in stopping play. 

"Getting harder, yeah right!" Djokovic countered sarcastically.

Play was suspended by the rain and the grounds crew covered the court with a tarp.

Tennis Express

The match resumed with Fritz finding a short angle with a forehand to hold for 6-5. 

Two points from a final set, Djokovic threw down a serve winner and an ace to force the tie breaker after 90 minutes on court.

In the breaker, Fritz rocketed a serve down the T before blasting a backhand for 5-4. Two points from a third set again, Djokovic locked down winning a quality point working Fritz corner to corner.

Reading the wide serve, Djokovic smacked a sharp backhand return to end a long day's journey into night. Should seeds hold true to form, Djokovic would face either Monte-Carlo champion Stefanos Tsitsipas or Madrid finalist Matteo Berrettini in the quarterfinals. First, of course, he has to get past Norrie or Davidovich Fokina.


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