Novak Djokovic made a winning start on his return to tennis in the second round of the Italian Open in Rome on Tuesday, defeating Radek Stepanek 6-3, 7-5.
The Serbian missed the Madrid Masters last week with a wrist injury, but returned to the Masters 1000 circuit with a comfortable win over his Czech opponent in his first match since losing to Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters in April.
It was not a faultless victory for the two-time champion, as he twice lost a break advantage before completing his win in one hour and 37 minutes on court Centrale.
The world number two stated after the match that the conditions were one of the most difficult he has ever played in, due to the extreme winds both players were forced to play against.
He said after the game: "It was one of the most difficult conditions I’ve played in in my life.
“Playing when it’s very windy on the court, especially on clay, the clay gets in your eyes. It was very difficult to get any kind of rhythm. Stepanek is a very experienced player, so that’s why I had to be super-focused every game because I knew he had this variety of shots.”
The 26-year-old has now won 10 out of 11 matches against Stepanek, and he is looking to win his third ATP Masters Series title of 2014, after winning in Indian Wells and Miami earlier in the year.
But the six-time Grand Slam champion has had little practice on clay going into the French Open, which begins on Sunday May 25th, as his run to the last four in Monte Carlo has been his only tournament played on the red dirt this year.
His previous tournament victories in Rome came in 2008 and 2011, when he beat Stanislas Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal in both finals respectively.
It has proved to be one of his strongest clay court venues, as he has reached the final at the Foro Italico on four occasions, as he lost to Nadal at the final hurdle in 2009 and 2012, though he would have been disappointed with a quarter-final loss to Tomas Berdych in 2013.
The defeat for Stepanek was another low point in what has been a difficult year for the world number 43, as he is yet to make the quarter-finals of a tournament on the ATP tour since reaching the last eight in Sydney in January.
The former world number eight has won only three of nine matches on clay this year, and he is now certain to be unseeded for Roland Garros.
Djokovic will face either Spaniard Tommy Robredo or German Philipp Kohlschreiber for a place in the quarter-finals on Thursday, a stage he has never failed to reach in the tournament previously.
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