World No. 2 Novak Djokovic enjoyed a successful return to the court Tuesday as he knocked off Czech challenger Radek Stepanek 6-3, 7-5 in the second round of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, according to ATP World Tour on Twitter:
Djoker had a big advantage over Stepanek on paper with a career 9-1 mark against him, including eight consecutive victories, per ATPWorldTour.com.
It wasn't a match that Djokovic could afford to take lightly, though, due to the fact that Stepanek was battle tested against top-notch opponents, according to Nick Nemeroff of Tennis View Magazine:
Wawrinka and Stepanek are the only two players who have played Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal in 2014.— Nick Nemeroff (@NNemeroff) May 13, 2014
There was plenty of concern surrounding Djokovic's status after a wrist injury forced him to withdraw from the Madrid Open. Prior to his opener in Rome, however, Djoker proclaimed himself ready for action, per the Associated Press.
Right now I feel much more confident at the state of my wrist and I know that I'm ready much more to play a match than I was one week ago. ... It's a wiser decision if you try to heal it 100 percent than 50 percent and compromise the next weeks. ... The second time that it comes back it becomes a chronic injury, which you definitely don't want to have. From now on I will be extra careful about my wrist.
Djokovic's return to the court didn't get off to an ideal start as the Serbian star had to knock off some rust in the first game. Djoker fell behind 0-40 on serve and while he battled back to 30-40, Stepanek was able to secure a break right off the bat, according to Tennis Now:
For the first time since Monte-Carlo Novak Djokovic takes the court. Underway with Radek Stepanek on Centrale. Broken in first game.— TennisNow (@Tennis_Now) May 13, 2014
The quick break seemed to be a bit of a wake-up call for Djokovic as he answered with a break of his own to put the match back on level terms.
After trading holds, Djokovic took a 3-2 lead with yet another hold of serve. Unfortunately for Stepanek, he was unable to answer as Djoker took firm control of the set with his second break.
Djokovic put Stepanek on the ropes by winning his third consecutive game to make it 5-2, according to Sasa Ozmo of B92 in Serbia:
Novak doesn't look rusty to me. Moving fine, hitting OK returns. Stepanek playing his game well for now. #RomeMasters— Saša Ozmo (@ozmo_sasa) May 13, 2014
Stepanek extended the set with a hold to make it 5-3 in favor of Djokovic, but Djoker was able to close the set out emphatically on serve. Djokovic was dominant in the first set as Stepanek made plenty of mistakes and struggled mightily on his second serve, per Tennis TV:
Perhaps one reason for Stepanek's issues on serve was the fact that windy conditions wreaked havoc in terms of vision on the clay court, according to Barry Flatman of The Sunday Times:
Very windy at the Foro today. Clay gets in your eyes, agree Novak Djokovic, Radek Stepanek & umpire Mo Lahyani— Barry Flatman (@Barry_FlatmanST) May 13, 2014
It would have been very easy for Stepanek to fold up shop and refocus his preparation on the French Open, but he continued to battle in the second set. Djokovic did manage an early break, which put Stepanek behind the eight ball, however, his never-say-die attitude was evident.
Even so, Djokovic seemed to be in good position with a 4-3 lead on serve. Stepanek made things interesting, though, by breaking Djokovic's serve and evening things up at 4-4:
Djokovic was lacking power in that game and Stepanek converts his 1st BP in the 2nd set, 4:4. #RomeMasters— Saša Ozmo (@ozmo_sasa) May 13, 2014
Despite the momentary setback Djokovic wasn't deterred by any means. With the second set starting to slip away, Djoker broke back with immediate effect and pulled to within one game of victory:
And Novak breaks back, not unexpected. Stepanek almost serves his way out of trouble, but two great passing shots by Novak. #RomeMasters— Saša Ozmo (@ozmo_sasa) May 13, 2014
It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Djokovic would close out the match on serve, but his counterpart wasn't ready to go home quite yet. Stepanek broke Djokovic once again to make it 5-5 and his play started to prove troublesome for Djokovic:
Love when Stepanek can generate his old-school style of play on the clay.— Nick Nemeroff (@NNemeroff) May 13, 2014
The trend of failing to capitalize on breaks continued, though, as Djokovic engineered the fourth consecutive break of serve and once again gave himself an opportunity to end the match.
Although the closing games were unquestionably a struggle for Djokovic, the result was never really in doubt. Djoker put an exclamation point on his win by holding at 15 during the ensuing service game and finally putting away the feisty Stepanek.
The fact that Djokovic had to work for the win was actually a positive in that it forced him to dig deep and get back in the swing of things. Now Djoker will be faced with the challenge of progressing in the Rome Masters and getting properly prepared for the French Open.
In addition to Djokovic's injury management, it will be interesting to see how he handles his camp between now and the end of the French Open. Per Carole Bouchard of L'Equipe, Djokovic plans to utilize two coaches in the form of Marian Vajda and Boris Becker at Roland Garros:
Djokovic confirms both Vajda and Becker will be at French Open.Wants Vajda to help Boris understand him more efficiently,help the transition— Carole Bouchard (@carole_bouchard) May 11, 2014
The danger of having too many cooks in the kitchen is certainly present, but Djokovic is apparently comfortable having both coaches in his camp. It ultimately comes down to how he performs on the court as an individual, but the dynamic between Vajda and Becker will certainly be worth monitoring moving forward.
How will Djokovic fare in the Rome Masters?
That didn't seem to be an issue for Djokovic against Stepanek, but it could come into play when the level of competition rises. Things will already get much tougher for Djoker in the third round where he will face the winner of the Tommy Robredo vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber match.
Djokovic will be favored against either opponent, but they are both definite steps up from Stepanek. Because of that, Djokovic can't afford to look too far ahead, however, tennis fans are already giddy over the possibility of a potential final between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
That could also prove to be a preview of the French Open final, but a lot of things have to go right for both men in order for either final to become reality.
Djokovic didn't seem to show any ill effects from the wrist injury Tuesday, which is obviously a great sign. If Djoker remains in good health, then there is no reason why he can't make a run at the title in Rome.
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