Novak Djokovic made a winning return to competition at the Monte Carlo Masters on Tuesday, but was forced to work by his 198th-ranked Russian opponent when two-time defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas advanced as his rival withdrew injured. Djokovic is back on court after failing to get a waiver to enter the United States for last month’s Indian Wells tournament and Miami Open due to his covid vaccination stance. The world number one was in danger of losing the first set against Russian qualifier Ivan Gakhov before going through 7-6 (7/5), 6-2 in 1h 47min.
“I’ve never seen him play before today, and it’s always difficult to play against an opponent you don’t know,” said the Serb, a clay-court winner at Monte Carlo in 2013 and 2015.
Favorite for a third crown in the Principality in the absence of Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz, Djokovic will face 21st-ranked Lorenzo Musetti or 159th-ranked Luca Nardi, both Italians, for a place in the quarterfinals.
Tsitsipas advanced to the third round after Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi withdrew with a left wrist problem after just 22 minutes, trailing the Greek 4-1 in the first set.
World number three Tsitsipas will now face Chilean Nicolás Jarry, ranked 58, or Australian Alexei Popyrin, ranked 94, for a place in the quarterfinals.
Djokovic is preparing for his 23rd Grand Slam bid at the French Open. But the game did not go as smoothly as expected with Gakhov taking the first break to lead 4-3.
Djokovic broke immediately, but was unable to prevent the tiebreaker that closed on his first set point.
The second set was one-sided despite Gakhov holding out until the end.
“It was probably, if you can call it that, an ugly tennis win for me today,” said Djokovic, who is looking to extend his record 39 ATP Masters titles this week.
“I didn’t play to the best of my ability, particularly in the first set. And I expected that to happen in a way with turbulent conditions, a lot of wind today, changing direction.”
“It’s different to practice and then play an official match on clay.
“But in general, I’m pleased with the way I controlled my nerves, I think in the important moments and I managed to secure the victory in two sets.”
Rublev, Zverev survive
Earlier, Andrey Rublev and Alexander Zverev survived by losing a set, but last year’s runner-up Alejandro Davidovich Fokina fell at the first hurdle.
Fifth seed Rublev, who received a first-round bye, rallied to beat Spain’s Jaume Munar 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 in their second-round tie.
German Zverev got off to a shaky start to his clay-court season before beating Kazakh Alexander Bublik 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 in the first round.
“The feeling was, ‘No way, I could be out in the first round in Monaco,'” said Rublev, 25, who will face compatriot Khachanov, Dan Evans or qualifier Ilya Ivashka in the third round.
Zverev returned to clay for the first time since withdrawing in the French Open semifinals last year against Rafael Nadal with an ankle injury.
The German, seeded number 13, took just under two hours to get past Bublik.
“It felt horrible at times to be honest,” Zverev said.
“Usually it takes me five or 10 minutes to get used to a clay court, but this year was a little different. I needed to get the injury out of my head. I needed to get used to sliding again.”
Zverev, a two-time Monte Carlo semifinalist, will now play Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut for a place in the third round.
Davidovich Fokina of Spain fell 6-2, 6-2 to ninth seed Karen Khachanov.
Khachanov took 75 minutes to get past Davidovich Fokina, who lost last year’s final to Tsitsipas.
Italian Lorenzo Sonego saved four match points to beat French qualifier Ugo Humbert 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 and plays third seed Daniil Medvedev in the second round.
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