Novak Djokovic made a successful return to action in his first event since winning the Australian Open, overcoming talented teenager Jannik Sinner, 6-4, 6-2 to reach the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters third round.
"I think 'solid' is a good word to describe the performance," Djokovic said in his post-match press conference. "Obviously I know I can always do better. I'm working towards playing even on a higher level than I did today.
"I have to be satisfied considering I think I had a tough draw for the first round, playing Sinner, who is in form, who is striking the ball very well. I knew it was going to be a challenge. I walked into the court with the right intensity, right focus."
The world No. 1 began the 2021 season by winning his 18th Grand Slam title in Melbourne, and though he opted out of the Miami Open citing coronavirus restrictions, showed few signs of rust against the rising Italian to advance in 94 minutes on Court Rainer III.
A quarterfinalist at Roland Garros last fall, the 19-year-old Sinner made his Masters 1000 breakthrough in Djokovic’s absence, finishing runner-up to good friend and doubles partner Hubert Hurkacz in Miami. Sinner was victorious in his Monte Carlo main-draw debut against Albert Ramos-Viñolas, and aimed to carry that momentum through to his first encounter with Djokovic—scoring the first break of the match with some heavy hitting.
"I don't like to compare myself to even my younger self, even more with somebody else," Djokovic said, noting he, too, worked with Sinner's coach Riccardo Piatti. "I think what impresses me the most is his professionalism, his dedication to the everyday routines that he has to endure in order to play at such high level. I think this is why the consistency of his results is there.
"For a young player like this, what we normally would see and expect is he got a couple of good weeks here and there, but the consistency is not there until the young player matures. With him it's different. He really has a good mindset. He seems more mature for his age than the rest of the guys with the way he's playing and training."
Djokovic, twice a champion in Monte Carlo (2013, 2015), returned the favor in the following game—and was soon up 5-2 before Sinner broke the Serb with the opening set on the line.
"In the first maybe three, four games I was still feeling maybe not as comfortable hitting the ball," Djokovic said. "Then I started to work my way in the match, just made him play, made him move. It's not easy playing someone that has not much to lose, young player like Sinner. His game style is such that he smacks the ball quite hard from both ends, so you got to kind of weather the storm and use the angles well."
His high-risk style ultimately faltered in the face of Djokovic’s supreme consistency, though, and a backhand error ended the set in the top seed’s favor.
"I think what I missed were maybe one game each set I played a little bit not in the right way, which in the first set was 2-1, in the second set it was 4-2 when he was serving," Sinner said after the match.
"But I think the rest was not a bad match from my side. At some point, especially in the second set, the level was very high...the focus is always about improving. That's what I'm doing. That's what I'm trying to do. Try to learn from this match today as well, even if sometimes it's tough to accept."
The second set continued in similar fashion; though Sinner often impressed with flashy hitting, Djokovic’s foundation persistently proved far too solid. Taking an identical 5-2 lead, the 33-year-old made no mistake this time, pressing Sinner into a double fault to convert his third match point.
In all, he struck an even 10 winners each off the forehand and backhand sides, balancing that with 21 unforced errors—seven fewer than Sinner, who struck 28 to 17 total winners—and engineered 10 total break point chances, winning half.
Djokovic could have had a shot at sweeping the Miami Open finalists, but No. 13-seeded Hurkacz bowed out of his round-of-32-clash to Dan Evans, 6-4, 6-1, and the Brit will be his next opponent instead.
"You would think that with his game maybe the clay would suit him the least, but he's proving people wrong," Djokovic said of Evans. "I mean, he can play equally well on clay. He moves great, very, very dynamic, explosive player. Great forehand, good serve. He comes to the net. He uses his slice very well.
"Obviously every time you face someone for the first time, probably I'm going to have to use a little bit more analysis of his game prior to tomorrow's match, talk to few people and my coach as well, try to prepare myself as best as I can."
Around The Grounds...
No. 6 seed Andrey Rublev opened play on Wednesday with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Sinner’s countryman Salvatore Caruso. The Russian is coming off his first Masters 1000 semifinal in Miami, and will next take on either No. 9 seed Roberto Bautista Agut or Tommy Paul for what would be his best Masters result on clay.
Casper Ruud scored the first big upset of the day, reversing an 0-4 head-to-head against No. 7 seed Diego Schwartzman to earn his second career Top 10 win. Coached by father and former ATP pro Christian, Ruud, who has trained at the Rafael Nadal Academy in Mallorca, will face either No. 12 seed Pablo Carreño Busta or Karen Khachanov for a place in the quarterfinals.
No. 15 seed Fabio Fognini looms in Ruud’s section of the draw; the veteran Italian continued his title defense by ousting Aussie Jordan Thompson, 6-3, 6-3, and will aim to avenge a 2019 defeat to Filip Krajinovic in the following round.
Grigor Dimitrov booked a likely match-up with 11-time champion Rafael Nadal after defeating Frenchman Jeremy Chardy, 7-6 (3), 6-4, while No. 16 seed Cristian Garin backed up his win over Felix Auger-Aliassime with a 6-1, 6-4 victory against John Millman; the Chilean will meet No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas on Thursday.