ROME (AP) — Novak Djokovic was tested by 61st-ranked Tomas Martin Etcheverry in a 7-6 (5), 6-2 opening win at the Italian Open on Friday.
Aiming for a seventh title on the red clay of the Foro Italico as he prepares for the French Open, Djokovic twice had to recover from deficits during a tight first set.
Djokovic was returning after three weeks off due to a lingering issue with his surgically repaired right elbow.
In his previous two tournaments on red clay, Djokovic had consecutive early exits.
He lost in the round of 16 at Monte Carlo to Lorenzo Musetti. Then Dusan Lajovic beat him in the quarterfinals of the Srpska Open in Bosnia and Herzegovina, dealing him his first loss to a fellow Serbian in 11 years.
After his serve was broken in the opening game of the match — after which he put a black sleeve on over his right elbow — Djokovic fell behind 3-1 before eventually getting back on serve.
Djokovic had two set points on Etcheverry’s serve at 5-4 in the first but the Argentine produced two big serves that Djokovic couldn’t return.
Then Etcheverry took a 3-0 lead in the tiebreaker before Djokovic again rallied back — this time taking control for good.
Djokovic said he was “still not at the desired level, still finding the shots, finding that groove on the court.
“But it’s always a little tricky playing somebody for the first time. He’s a clay-court specialist and he started better than I did. I started pretty slow but I kind of found my groove toward the end of the first.”
While it was up and down at the start, there were also moments of vintage Djokovic. Like when he produced a delicate forehand stop volley winner to conclude a long rally midway through the first set, after which he pumped his fist and motioned with his arms for the crowd to cheer louder.
Etcheverry, who reached clay finals in Santiago and Houston this year, also impressed when he hit a tweener shot between his legs early in the second set, to which Djokovic replied with a volley into the net — prompting him to grin as he shook his head.
Djokovic was unhappy with the condition of the clay on Campo Centrale and he told the chair umpire at one point during the first set that the court was an “absolute disaster.”
“Every bounce is different. It seems like there’s too much clay. A half meter in, half meter out,” Djokovic said as workers smoothed the court out.
Djokovic’s third-round opponent will be Grigor Dimitrov, who beat Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 7-6 (3).
In the same half of the draw as Djokovic, local hope Jannik Sinner was nearly unbeatable on his serve as he defeated Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-1, 6-4.
Also, Australian qualifier Alexei Popyrin wore down Felix Auger-Aliassime over more than three hours by 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 — leaving the 10th-ranked Auger-Aliassime still without a win on clay this season.
Italian veteran Fabio Fognini celebrated a 6-3, 7-6 (6) win over Miomir Kecmanovic by bringing his 5-year-old son, Federico, out onto the court with him on the statue-lined Pietrangeli stadium.
Fognini next faces seventh-seeded Holger Rune, who ousted 18-year-old French qualifier Arthur Fils 6-3, 6-3. It’s a potentially explosive matchup, with both Fognini and Rune known for misbehaving on the court, combined with the raucous fans in Rome.
In women’s action, top-ranked Iga Swiatek opened her bid for a third straight Rome title with a 6-0, 6-0 rout of former French Open finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for her 12th consecutive win in the Italian capital.
“I feel pretty confident here,” Swiatek said. “I feel like these are the right circumstances and right conditions for me to play my solid game.”
Paula Badosa defeated Ons Jabeur, last year’s runner-up, 6-1, 6-4; and ninth-seeded Maria Sakkari beat Barbora Strycova 6-1, 6-3.
Karolina Muchova eliminated the top Italian woman, 18th-seeded Martina Trevisan, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5.
Sinner won all 16 of his service points in the first set and 36 of 39 overall behind strong home support.
A group of five orange-clad fans in the upper deck on Campo Centrale were dressed as carrots, a tribute both to Sinner’s red — or nearly orange-colored — hair and to how he used to eat the vegetable on changeovers at the start of his career.
The last Italian man to raise the trophy at the Foro Italico was Adriano Panatta in 1976. Raffaella Reggi won the 1985 women’s tournament in Taranto.
“It’s just a very special tournament for me,” Sinner said. “I feel ready to compete. … I feel the fans’ affection. It’s positive pressure.”
Ranked a career-high No. 8 this week, Sinner skipped the Madrid Open so he could better prepare for this tournament. He arrived in Rome early and worked on his serve.
“It’s still not a perfect serve,” Sinner said, noting he’s trying to improve his timing by lowering his ball toss.
Sinner will next play Russian qualifier Alexander Shevchenko, who advanced past Sebastian Baez 6-3, 6-4.
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