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May 14, 2021

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Novak has a ball as fans return

The fans were back at the Foro Italico, the sun was out, and Novak Djokovic’s game was clicking.

The top-ranked Serb seemed to enjoy every moment of his 6-2, 6-1 win over Spanish qualifier Alejandro Davidovich Fokina that put him in the Italian Open quarterfinals.

After spectators were banned from the opening rounds of the Rome tournament because of the coronavirus pandemic, capacity was at 25 percent yesterday as part of the Italian government’s re-opening plan.

“It was not good, it was great,” Djokovic said. “I missed the crowd as much as anybody else — one of the biggest reasons why I keep on playing.

“So it was nice to see them back and hopefully I can stay in this tournament an extra day to experience the crowd more and more. They definitely gave me great sensations today on the court and I enjoyed it.”

Djokovic often trains with Davidovich Fokina in Marbella, Spain. Perhaps that familiarity helped Davidovich Fokina break the top-ranked Djokovic in the opening game.

But Djokovic broke right back and quickly took control.

A five-time champion in Rome — with his last title coming in September when the tournament was moved amid the pandemic — Djokovic is looking to boost his claycourt game before the French Open starts at the end of the month.

It’s been a rough start to the clay season for Djokovic with a third-round loss to Daniel Evans at the Monte Carlo Masters followed by a defeat to Aslan Karatsev in the semifinals of his home tournament, the Belgrade Open.

Djokovic said he played “at least 20-30 percent better‚“ than he did against Taylor Fritz in his opening match in Rome.

“So I am on a good trajectory,” he said. “And hopefully tomorrow will be even better.”

Djokovic will next face Monte Carlo champion Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, who saw off Madrid Open finalist Matteo Berrettini of Italy 7-6 (3), 6-2. Both are top-10 players. “It’s going to be a battle,” Djokovic said.

Also reaching the quarterfinals was 2.11-meter American Reilly Opelka, who eliminated Russia’s Karatsev, an Australian Open semifinalist, 7-6 (6), 6-4.

Opelka served 18 aces and won 52 of 69 points on his serve to record his third consecutive straight-sets win this week — after entering Rome on a six-match losing streak that included dealing with a bout of COVID-19.

In the women’s tournament, top-ranked Ashleigh Barty beat Russian Veronika Kudermetova in straight sets 6-3, 6-3 and will next face American teenager Cori “Coco” Gauff, who defeated Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus 7-5, 6-3.

Sabalenka, who overcame Australian Barty in the Madrid Open final on Saturday, committed more than twice as many unforced errors as Gauff — 36 to 17.

It’s the fourth time this season that the 17-year-old Gauff has reached the quarterfinals.

“It will be great to see where my level is,” said Gauff of playing Barty.

“I mean, she’s the No. 1 player in the world. I have no pressure on me.

“I’m just going to go out there and see what I can do and try my best.”

Jessica Pegula, another American, followed up her victory over Japan’s second seed Naomi Osaka by eliminating Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-2, 6-4.

Six of the WTA’s top ten players have already exited the Foro Italico, including Osaka, four-time Rome winner Serena Williams and Sofia Kenin of the United States and Czech Petra Kvitova.


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