Four-time Rome Masters champion Novak Djokovic continues his Internazionali BNL d’Italia title defence on Thursday when he takes on Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci in the third round.
Coming into this tournament on the back of a record-breaking 29th ATP Masters 1000 title in Madrid on Sunday, Djokovic experienced a tougher-than-expected challenge in his Rome opener on Wednesday against the brilliantly eccentric Stephane Robert. Djokovic was forced to save multiple break points in the opening set and recover from a 4-2 deficit in the second set to narrowly overcome the flashy French qualifier 7-5 7-5 in 87 minutes. With absolutely nothing to lose, Robert delighted the Italian crowd with some masterful tennis, consistently unloading off both wings to produce blistering winners throughout. However Djokovic was able to lift his game when he needed it most, forcing the 35-year-old Robert to press too much in the crucial stages - and that was ultimately the slight difference between the pair on the day.
“Today was an extremely difficult match for several reasons. The conditions were very tough. The player that I played against was very unpredictable with his shots... He was going for some shots that were amazing, and with these windy conditions you don't get too much rhythm," Djokovic said. "When it mattered the most, I managed to make him play an extra shot and pull this one through."
It was an important match for Djokovic to get through in straight sets, with the World No. 1 favouring his lower back on several occasions in the contest. It doesn’t appear to be a serious issue however, with Djokovic moving freely towards the latter stages of the encounter. Djokovic’s triumph was his 34th win of the season, which includes titles at the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami and Madrid. The Serbian has still lost just the one completed match all season and is a perfect 12-0 against top 10 players. Next up for Djokovic in Rome is a man he defeated at this stage of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia last year.
Thomaz Bellucci came from qualifying to advance through to the third round of the main draw where he sensationally took the opening set against Djokovic before ultimately succumbing 5-7 6-2 6-3. Djokovic and Bellucci would meet two more times in 2015 at Masters 1000 level, in Canada and Paris, with Djokovic winning both matches in tight straight sets.
Thomaz Bellucci (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
The left-handed Brazilian has experienced a rather strange career. Bellucci has mostly hovered between the 25-50 mark, but fell outside the top 150 three years ago due to a huge drop in form. The 28-year-old has clawed his way back up the rankings however, and has been a mainstay in the top 50 for the last year. Currently ranked No. 37 with a career-high of No. 21 back in 2010, Bellucci has won four ATP World Tour titles (all on clay), with his best result at a big tournament coming at the 2011 Madrid Masters, where he defeated Andy Murray en route to the semi-finals.
It hasn’t been the best season for Bellucci to date though, with the Brazilian winning just five matches all year before this tournament. Three of those came at Quito, where he reached the final, losing to Victor Estrella Burgos. Bellucci then lost his next six matches, but the prospect of defending his third round points in Rome has propelled the left-hander to his best form this week, upstaging 14th seed Gael Monfils in the opening round and veteran Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in the second round - both in straight sets.
Overall Djokovic holds an unblemished 5-0 record over Bellucci - including two wins at Rome in 2010 and last year. However Bellucci has always been able to make at least one set competitive, and even win a couple. His left-handed topspin forehand can cause problems for Djokovic, but considering the Serbian has successfully shot down that aspect of Rafael Nadal’s game over the years, he should be well equipped to deal with it. Djokovic wasn’t at his best on Wednesday, but with one match under his belt in Rome, he is poised to lift on Thursday.