The red-clay courts of the Italian Open “seem like paradise” to Novak Djokovic after a week on the experimental blue surface in Madrid.
World No. 1 Djokovic was one of several top players who were highly critical of the blue clay tested at the Madrid Open, especially after he lost to fellow Serb Janko Tipsarevic in the quarter-finals.
“It feels great,” Djokovic said on Sunday. “After that blue clay, this clay seems like paradise.”
“The most basic thing you have in our sport — the most important — is the movement,” Djokovic said. “If you cannot be in balance for the ball, and to hit the ball, then everything becomes twice as difficult. That’s the biggest difference. Here you can actually be on the ball and slide well, where there you were slipping and falling down.”
Rome is the last major warm-up before the French Open begins in two weeks and winning Roland Garros is a “top priority” for Djokovic after winning every other Grand Slam besides Paris last year.
However, in addition to dealing with the blue clay, Djokovic also had to play while mourning the death of his grandfather in Monte Carlo a few weeks ago, losing a lopsided final to Rafael Nadal.
“I don’t think my preparation for Roland Garros has been disturbed in any way, because I feel like I’ve practiced very hard the last five weeks,” Djokovic said. “Right now, I’m just thinking about Rome.”
Djokovic, who beat Nadal in last year’s Rome final, could face Australian teenager Bernard Tomic in his opening match this year.
First-round action at the Foro Italico began on Sunday with former French Open winner Juan Carlos Ferrero beating Kevin Anderson of South Africa 6-4, 7-5. Also, Italian wild-card Paolo Lorenzi held off Russian veteran Nikolay Davydenko 6-3, 2-6, 6-3.
The top eight seeds have first-round byes.
Fourth-ranked Andy Murray is feeling healthy again after skipping Madrid due to a back injury.
“I’m pretty good,” Murray said. “I’ve taken 10 days off from Barcelona and I got here on Tuesday evening, so I’ve been practicing.”
While Murray did not do it on purpose, avoiding the blue clay could turn out to be an advantage.
“It was my decision to stop ... People have been saying that I was much smarter than they were,” Murray said. “Obviously the conditions there were not ideal and with the French Open just a couple of weeks away, I’m not going to have to make adjustments which I would have had to do from Madrid.”
The women’s tournament began yesterday, with defending champion Maria Sharapova looking to bounce back from a quarter-final loss to Serena Williams in Madrid.
Sharapova opened the clay-court season by beating top-ranked Victoria Azarenka in Stuttgart.
Having struggled on clay at the beginning of her career, Sharapova cited improved fitness as the reasons for her recent success.
“I only play three or four tournaments a year on clay and you need to be physically ready,” Sharapova said. “You often have five days in a row, with three-hour matches, and so I have improved on recovering effectively and this has given me confidence.”
Last year’s French Open winner, Li Na of China, has had a slower start to her clay season, losing in the quarter-finals in both Stuttgart and Madrid, but she has finally adapted to her newfound superstar status in China.
“Before, even if I won the tournament, after I could do whatever I wanted, but after I won [Roland Garros], wherever I go people are like: ‘Ah, this is Li Na.’ I really didn’t know what I should do,” Li said.