Novak Djokovic was being pushed so hard in the first set by Filip Krajinovic that he urgently needed somewhere to sit down and catch his breath at the Italian Open on Friday.
In the end, he somehow closed out the first set in one hour, 28 minutes and went on to claim a 7-6 (7), 6-3 victory for a spot in the quarterfinals for the 14th straight year. “It was a great battle,” said Djokovic, who is playing his first tournament since being defaulted from the US Open.
“Definitely one of the longest sets I’ve ever played. We went toe to toe. It could have gone a different way.”
The opening set was so close that both players won the same number of points — 61 — and Djokovic didn’t close it out until his fifth set point when Krajinovic’s forehand sailed long. Shadows moved across the court in the second set.
“That allowed us to feel better,” Djokovic said. “But I’m very pleased with this first set. There were some very long rallies. This is what clay tennis is all about.”
Djokovic, a four-time Rome champion, will next play one of two qualifiers, either 18-year-old Italian Lorenzo Musetti or Dominik Koepfer. Later in the day, nine-time Rome champion Rafael Nadal was playing Dusan Lajovic for a spot in the last-eight.
Also at the Foro Italico, 15th-seed Grigor Dimitrov ended the run of Italian teenager Jannik Sinner with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win. Sinner, who had beaten third-seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the previous round, missed an easy overhead smash into the net on Dimitrov’s fifth match point.
“A loss like that hurts. But I’ll try to take the positive aspects out of it,” Sinner said. “That wasn’t the end I wanted.”
Dimitrov’s quarterfinal opponent will be Denis Shapovalov, who rallied past Ugo Humbert 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-4. Shapovalov, who reached the US Open quarterfinals in both singles and doubles, is aiming to do even better in both events this week.
Matteo Berrettini, the big-serving Roman who reached last year’s US Open semifinals, beat Stefano Travaglia 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1). He’ll next meet Casper Ruud, who defeated Marin Cilic 6-2, 7-6 (6).
The tournament has been played without fans so far because of the pandemic, although the Italian government said that up to 1,000 spectators will be allowed in to watch the semifinals and finals.
“It comes as a bit of surprise midway through,” Dimitrov said. “But there are a lot of things that we have control of and some things that we just got to go along with.”
The event was rescheduled from its usual slot in May because of the pandemic.
“I would have preferred to have fans from the start or at least tomorrow,” Berrettini said. “But 1,000 people isn’t a small number and they will make themselves heard.”