Djokovic finds his feet on Rome clay after injury nightmare

Rome (AFP) –


Former world number one Novak Djokovic said Monday he felt reassured to be back playing on the familiar red clay of Rome as he dispatched Alexandr Dolgopolov in straight sets in the first round.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion, who won the last of his 68 ATP titles at the Canadian Open in 2016, has slipped to 18th in the world, his lowest ranking in 12 years as he struggles with a nightmare elbow injury.

But he got off to a comfortable start in his bid for a fifth ATP Italian Open title at the Foro Italico, taking 55 minutes to oust Ukrainian Dolgopolov in the first round.

"Rome has always been a place where I felt good, where I received a lot of support, where I played well, and had a lot of great results," said Djokovic.

"And today's match encourages me and gives me reason to believe that it can be a good week for me.

"Obviously I would like to go all the way but, at the same time, looking at my results I have to be a little more modest with expectations and see where it takes me."

The 11th-seeded Serb has reached eight of the last ten finals in Rome, including the past two years, and won four titles -- most recently in 2015.

Djokovic broke 54th-ranked Dolgopolov three times in the opening set, with another break in the second helping him wrap up the match.

He next plays either Nikoloz Basilashvili or Filippo Baldi, both qualifiers, before a potential third round meeting with US eighth seed John Isner.

And the 30-year-old said his focus was on the French Open where he won his last Grand Slam title in 2016.

"The French Open is where I want to play my best tennis. That's the big goal for this part of the season," added Djokovic.

"I know that I haven't been up to the level that I desired but I feel like my game has been going in the right direction in the last couple of tournaments.

"It's a mental game for sure. Knowing that I've reached the biggest heights of this sport and been consistent with the best possible results for so many years. The bar has been raised so high.

"When I step on the court, I expect to win every match against anybody on any surface. And it's not a secret.

"At the same time I had to learn in the last 12 months that, because of the circumstances and injury and surgery, I had to think about my game and about my results and approach the tournaments in a little bit different way.

"But, I'm getting there. And I feel more comfortable on the court."

- Vinci bows out -

Belgian ninth seed David Goffin also eased past Argentine Leonardo Mayer 6-1, 6-2, as Japan's Kei Nishikori sent Feliciano Lopez home early with a 7-6 (7/5), 6-4 defeat -- the Spaniard's sixth in seven visits to Rome.

Nishikori, runner-up to Rafael Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo, next meets third seed Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria.

In the women's event, former US Open finalist Roberta Vinci fell 2-6, 6-0, 6-3 to Serbian qualifier Aleksandra Krunic in her final tournament before retiring.

The 35-year-old reached the US Open final in 2010 and won ten singles title in her career spanning nearly two decades.

"Of course, I wanted to win and after the first set I thought I could do it," said Vinci.

"But today, the result was of little interest. I wanted to close here otherwise I would have stopped already last year.

"I feel like a student at the last day of school."

Japan's Naomi Osaka powered her way past former world number one Victoria Azarenka of Belarus 6-0, 6-3 to set up a meeting with top seed Simona Halep of Romania.

American Madison Keys, seeded 13th, beat Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-4, 6-1, with Britain's Johanna Konta easing past Slovak 17th-seed Magdalena Rybarikova 6-4, 6-3.

American Coco Vandeweghe, the 12th seed, fell 6-1, 6-1 to Estonia's Anett Kontaveit.