ROME - Novak Djokovic made a winning return nearly a month after suffering a wrist injury, starting the Rome Masters on a rainy Tuesday with a 6-3, 7-5 defeat of Radek Stepanek. The second-round victory after a bye was the first match for the world number two Serb since losing a Monte Carlo semi-final on April 19 to Roger Federer while suffering with his right wrist problem.
Djokovic, a two-time champion at the Foro Italico, was to have played last week in Madrid but held off. He won in Rome with new coach Boris Becker looking on. The Serb, who is competing in Rome for an eighth straight year, won his 25th match here against five defeats. Three of his losses have come against Nadal, the top seed bidding for an eighth trophy in the capital.
The end against Stepanek was a struggle, comprising four consecutive breaks of serve before Djokovic took victory with a service return winner out wide after 97 minutes. Roger Federer will be back on court eight days after the birth of his twin boys Leo and Lenny as he competes due to some fortunate timing in the birth of his second set of twins.
"Since they were born last Tuesday, that gave me a better chance of playing Rome," said the Monte Carlo finalist, who plays on Wednesday against France's Jeremy Chardy. "I didn't want too much of a break. It doesn't matter if I play five matches or one match here. As long as I feel the pulse of things on the tour. Of course I hope to win my first-round match, but at the moment I have totally different priorities."
Federer has lost three Rome finals, all three to Spaniards and the last two (2006, 2013) to Nadal. The top-seeded Spaniard is preparing to face one of the biggest annual changes on the clay when he starts three days after winning another Madrid title. "Yes it's a big change (from Madrid altitude to sea-level Rome), but when you are winning it is a lot easier," said the holder. "You always need time to adjust. It's nothing crazy, you must work on how you hit the ball. The ball flies more in Madrid (at 800 metres) and you have less control. In Rome you have to hit harder. But this is something that I've done a lot over the past years," said the world number one, who claimed his first title in Rome nine years ago in an epic five-set final over Guillermo Coria.
Nadal begins on the second round when he plays Frenchman Gilles Simon, whom he has beaten on five of six occasions. "There is a different feeling in Rome than Madrid and the conditions are a bit tougher due to the rain (which delayed Tuesday's start of play)," he said. "This is a tournament that I like and where I've played a lot of important matches and done well." As usual, the Spaniard who was without a spring European title before winning at home on Sunday, said that Roland Garros is not yet entering his mind.
"We are in Rome, not Paris and I'm only thinking about this tournament. It's always day-by-day, match-by-match for me. When I get to Paris, then it will be time to think of the French Open." In men's first-round play, a pair of Colombians both retired. Croatian Marin Cilic advanced over Santiago Giraldo 6-4, 2-0 while Ernests Gulbis took a 6-1 defeat of Alejandro Falla.