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International

Novak Djokovic Enjoys Himself with Fans Back at Italian Open

ROME — The fans were back at the Foro Italico, the sun was out, and Novak Djokovic's game was clicking.

The top-ranked Serb seemed to enjoy every moment of his 6-2, 6-1 win over Spanish qualifier Alejandro Davidovich Fokina that put him in the Italian Open quarterfinals.

After spectators were banned from the opening rounds of the Rome tournament because of the coronavirus pandemic, capacity was at 25% on Thursday as part of the Italian government's re-opening plan.

"It was not good, it was great," Djokovic said. "I missed the crowd as much as anybody else — one of the biggest reasons why I keep on playing.

"So it was nice to see them back and hopefully I can stay in this tournament an extra day to experience the crowd more and more. They definitely gave me great sensations today on the court and I enjoyed it."

Djokovic often trains with Davidovich Fokina in Marbella, Spain. Perhaps that familiarity helped Davidovich Fokina break the top-ranked Djokovic in the opening game.

But Djokovic broke right back and quickly took control.

A five-time champion in Rome — with his last title coming in September when the tournament was moved amid the pandemic — Djokovic is looking to boost his clay-court game before the French Open starts at the end of the month.

It's been a rough start to the clay season for Djokovic with a third-round loss to Daniel Evans at the Monte Carlo Masters followed by a defeat to Aslan Karatsev in the semifinals of his home tournament, the Belgrade Open.

Djokovic said he played "at least 20-30% better" than he did against Taylor Fritz in his opening match in Rome.

"So I'm on a good trajectory," he said. "And hopefully tomorrow will be even better."

Djokovic will next face Monte Carlo champion Stefanos Tsitsipas, who eliminated Madrid Open finalist Matteo Berrettini 7-6 (3), 6-2 in a matchup of top-10 players.

"It's going to be a battle," Djokovic said, who has reached the quarterfinals in each of his 15 appearances at the tournament in Rome.

"It always feels like home coming back to Rome," Djokovic said. "With the amount of love and appreciation that I get and respect from people here, not just on the court, but outside in the organization here, from the drivers, the restaurant, people in hotel, everyone is really super kind to me. Maybe it helps that I speak Italian."

Also reaching the quarterfinals was 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) American Reilly Opelka, who eliminated Karatsev, an Australian Open semifinalist, 7-6 (6), 6-4.

Opelka served 18 aces and won 52 of 69 points on his serve to record his third consecutive straight-set win this week — after entering Rome on a six-match losing streak that included dealing with a bout of COVID-19. He has yet to drop his serve in three matches this week.

In the women's tournament, top-ranked Ash Barty beat Veronika Kudermetova 6-3, 6-3 and will next face American teenager Coco Gauff, who defeated Aryna Sabalenka 7-5, 6-3. French Open champion Iga Swiatek beat Barbora Krejcikova 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5.

Sabalenka, who overcame Barty in the Madrid Open final on Saturday, committed more than twice as many unforced errors as Gauff — 36 to 17.

It's the fourth time this season that the 17-year-old Gauff has reached the quarterfinals. She said she was helped by a breathing technique she learned from watching the Japanese anime series Demon Slayer.

"The main character, Tanjiro, he has this breathing technique right before he fights. When I get nervous, I notice that slowing down my breathing helps me a lot," Gauff said. "At least five to 10 times it was in my head. You got to do the total concentration breathing that Tanjiro does."

Jessica Pegula, another American, followed up her victory over Naomi Osaka by eliminating Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-2, 6-4. Pegula's quarterfinal opponent will be Petra Martic, who beat Nadia Podoroska 3-6, 6-1, 6-2.

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