When Djokovic Traded Tennis For Family Time

Novak Djokovic (photo: InteBNLdItalia/Twitter)

ROME/WASHINGTON, May 12, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic loves to hike, loves to spend as much time as possible in nature – forests, lakes, mountains, rivers.

“You know, I try to be, whether it’s with my family or friends or by myself, I try to be outdoors as much as I can,” he said Monday during a virtual interview in advance of beginning defense of his Internazionali BNL d’Italia title in Rome.

“We did hike Rtanj Mountain in Serbia for the second time in a year, and it’s [a] very powerful mountain. Very mystical as well. Has a great view, great energy.”

Djokovic shocked many when he withdrew from playing in last week’s ATP Masters 1000 clay event in Madrid, the Mutua Madrid Open. He did so in order to be with his wife. “It was quality time we spent together,” he recalled. “We always feel like we can reconnect when we are together in nature. With kids it’s a little bit more difficult. They are still a bit too small to climb a mountain like that.

“Yeah, I got to spend time with my wife, with my kids, with my brothers, my parents, friends, just enjoy life, dedicate myself to some other things that are interesting [to] me, that are consuming so of my private time as well. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot.”

Now, Djokovic is back on court, where he is trying to win the Rome title for a sixth time. While both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been known to spend weeks at a time off the ATP Tour to rest, relax and recharge, it’s something we’re starting to see the 33-year-old Djokovic, who turns 34 later this month, do more.

“I’m trying to engage myself in the activities that I have put on hold for 15-plus years, because I never had time for that,” Djokovic admitted. “So, now, all of a sudden, I have a little bit more time and a little bit more windows of opportunities to do these things. It makes me very happy.”

Sometimes, best friends are on opposite sides of the net

What happens when best friends, who are familiar with each other’s playing style and understand the other’s personality traits, are on opposite sides of the net? Look no further than Tuesday morning’s match between Americans Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, which began the day on Pietrangeli.

In their sixth meeting, the 23rd-ranked Keys won for the second time against the No. 65 Stephens, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, in two hours and 30 minutes. She won the final eight points of the match and put it away on her third match-point opportunity. It came a month after Stephens beat Keys 6-4, 6-4 at the Volvo Car Open in Charleston, S.C., which snapped an 11-match losing streak against Top 100 players for the 2017 US Open champion.

This time, Keys ended her four-match losing streak and won for just the third time this season in eight outings, coming back from down 0-2 in the third set to win. It was the first time this season that Keys, a 2016 Rome finalist, had come back to win after losing the first set. She overcame 56 unforced errors by hitting 37 winners, while Stephens hit just nine winners and committed 32 unforced errors. Keys found a way to win even if she wasn’t playing her best.

Stephens arrived in the main draw as a lucky loser replacement for World No. 20 Karolina Muchova, who withdrew due to an abdominal muscle pain. This happened after Stephens lost in the final round of qualifying to Tamara Zidansek on Sunday. Next, Keys will face World No. 15 and 15th seed Iga Swiatek in Wednesday’s second round.

“It wasn’t easy. Everyone who watched probably noticed and also saw, it’s also never easy playing one of my best friends on tour,” Keys told Tennis Channel‘s Prakash Amritraj following her win against Stephens. “It’s lots of high drama, but I’m happy to get the win and happy to be playing tomorrow.”

As soon as the match had ended and Keys and Stephens walked off the court together, they stood behind the chair umpire’s perch and struck up a friendly conversation – random musings as Keys labeled them – before the two besties packed up their racquet bags and left Pietrangeli side by side.

“I feel like the only time we’re not really talking is when we actually have to play a match against each other,” Keys said, laughing about it. “So, as soon as the match is over, we get to go back to being normal.”

Osaka wants Tokyo Summer Olympics to happen …

During her pre-tournament Media Day virtual interview session with international press on Sunday, World No. 2 Naomi Osaka, who represents Japan (the country of her berth) despite living and training in the United States, wants the Tokyo Summer Olympics to take place despite the complications presented because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I would say I want the Olympics to happen, because I’m an athlete and that’s sort of what I have been waiting for my entire life,” said Osaka, who plays her first match in Rome Wednesday afternoon against American Jessica Pegula on Pietrangeli.

“But I think that there is so much important stuff going on, and especially the past year, I think a lot of unexpected things have happened. For me, I feel like if it’s putting people at risk and if it’s making people very uncomfortable, then it definitely should be a discussion, which I think it is as of right now. Yeah, at the end of the day, I’m just an athlete, and there is a whole pandemic going on.”


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… while Nishikori raises questions about their feasibility

Kei Nishikori, Japan’s highest-profile men’s tennis player, expressed doubts about whether the International Olympic Committee and local organizers are doing enough to plan for a worst-case scenario – hundreds or even thousands – of coronavirus cases at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Or whether it’s still feasible for the Games to take place in lieu of a state of emergency that’s been extended in both Tokyo and other portions of Japan as a result of the pandemic.

On Monday, Nishikori was asked to comment about the state of the upcoming Summer Olympics in his home country. “ I don’t know what they are thinking, and I don’t know how much they are thinking about how they are going to make a bubble, because this is not 100 people like these tournaments,” he said. “It’s 10,000 people in the village. So I don’t think it’s easy, especially what’s happening right now in Japan. It’s not doing good. Well, not even [just] Japan. You have to think all over the world right now.”

Around the Foro Italico

A three-hour rain delay that began late in the afternoon cancelled two men’s singles matches that hadn’t reached court and held up four others, three which had already begun, including men’s No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic, who led 6-3, 5-5 against No. 31 Taylor Fritz of the United States. When play resumed at 7:50 p.m., both players held their serve and it forced a tie-break. The World No. 1 made brief work in his return to the court, winning 6-3, 7-6 (5), in an hour and 39 minutes, that was stretched over four hours and 37 minutes of actual time.

Djokovic finished with 23 winners – including five aces – and hit 22 unforced errors. Fritz finished with 27 winners and committed 19 unforced errors. Djokovic outpointed Fritz 76-65.

“It was a very strange match with strange conditions,” Djokovic said afterwards during his virtual press conference. “Obviously, playing under the rain non-stop for almost two full sets, it is challenging for both me and him. I thought that I had an advantage there because the conditions were slower which allows me to return his serves, because he’s got really big serves.”

Just before play stopped, Djokovic visibly showed and expressed his frustrations over the playing conditions with the chair umpire. He later apologized after returning to the court to resume the match.

“I kind of kept the match under my control for most part of the two sets, then served for the match; very sloppy service game,” Djokovic admitted. “He played well, made a great passing shot to come back I was stressed out in the end obviously, but I think it was the right call to stop the match.”

Djokovic is 4-2 since winning the Australian Open in February. He improved his career mark in the Italian capital city to 56-9 to go with his five Italian Open titles. Next, he will face either Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina or Cameron Norrie of Great Britain on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Alizé Cornet of France was a game into her battle with No. 26 Angelique Kerber that the German went on to win 6-2, 7-5 after one hour and 35 minutes in back of 32 winners to advance against Romanian No. 3 seed Simona Halep, and Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic was close to a straight-set win over Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, which she wrapped up 6-4, 6-2, within minutes after resuming play. It advanced Tomljanovic to meet Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko, who beat No. 16 seed Johanna Konta of Great Britain, 6-3, 6-1, in 70 minutes (following the completion of the Djokovic-Fritz match) by taking advantage of six break points won and 24 winners. She outpointed Konta 63-41.

Earlier in the day, on the men’s side: two days after losing the Madrid final, No. 9 seed Matteo Berrettini of Italy advanced over Nikoloz Basilashvili from Georgia, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, and No. 10 seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain and No. 13 seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada also advanced reached the second round. However, three seeds fell: No. 14 seed Gaël Monfils of France and No. 16 seed Grigor Dimitrov from Bulgaria lost to Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego and Davidovich Folkina, respectively, in the opening round, and No. 8 seed Diego Schwartzman of Argentina lost to Canada’s 21st-ranked Felix Auger-Aliassime, 6-1, 6-3, in the third round.

Tuesday’s ATP Italian Open results

Before the rain fell, on the women’s side: No. 10 seed Belinda Bencic was upset by 53rd-ranked lucky loser Kristina Mladenovic, 6-3, 6-4, just two weeks after the two had met in Madrid with Bencic winning in straight sets. The rivalry between the Swiss and French competitors dates back to 2015 and Mladenovic now leads 4-3. Also, No. 14 seed Elise Mertens was defeated by her Istanbul doubles partner Veronika Kudermetova, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. The Russian amassed 40 winners to 321 unforced errors and broke the Belgian five times in 11 opportunities. Mertens hit nine double faults and committed 24 unforced errors.

Also, No. 12 seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, thrice a Rome semifinalist, advanced over 64th-ranked lucky loser Patricia Maria Tig of Romania, 6-1, 6-2, hitting 20 winners and converting six of eight break points in a match that finished just before the rain intensified. Muguruza outpointed Tig 55-29. Next, she will face 69th-ranked American qualifier Bernarda Pera, who advanced over Slovenian qualifier Tamara Zidansek, ranked 77th, 6-3, 6-2.

Afterward, in her virtual press conference, Muguruza said: “It was a weird day. I woke up sunny, had an opponent. Then, it turned out I had another opponent and it was raining the whole match. We had a little bit of everything.”

Muguruza was originally scheduled to face Madrid semifinalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who pulled out due to an abdominal strain. Instead, she faced Tig, who won the title on clay at Istanbul last fall.

“But Rome, it’s such a familiar tournament. I played here so many times, I’ve had nice matches. I love this clay, the red clay. It’s familiar to me. Just looking forward to get as many matches as possible.”

Tuesday’s WTA Italian Open results

Wednesday’s Italian Open order of play

What they’re saying

• Less than 48 hours after losing the Mutua Madrid Open title to Alexander Zverev, World No. 9 Matteo Berrettini of Italy was back on court, where he won his ninth match in his last 10 with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Nikoloz Basilashvili. Afterward, he said:

“When you have big weapons and they aren’t working, you feel a little bit weaker. He was really returning well. He played a really good match and struggled in the first set. I then found a way to fight through I found the right energy and motivation, to be calm, and not get tight. Playing so matches in the past few weeks helped me a lot. You always want to be clutch in the important moments.”

Petra Kvitova on the difference between playing in Madrid and Rome: “The courts, I would say here it’s more clay. The bounces are really everywhere. Madrid it’s more like [an] indoor tournament, I would say, a little bit, with no wind. Sometimes, no sun as well because really you are playing under the roof.”

Ashleigh Barty on what she’s doing with all of the trophies she’s been collecting while on the road from Australia: “I’m very lucky to be in a position in the last few weeks where we have been playing for titles and it’s been really exciting.” Barty won champion’s trophies recently at the Miami Open and Stuttgart and last Saturday was runner up at Madrid. “Thankfully, we are able to ship those home, which are a nice surprise on mum and dad’s doorstep.”