(Photo credit: REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi)
Novak Djokovic will look to continue his quest to get back to the top of the game when he takes on Spain’s Albert Ramos Vinolas in the third round of the Italian Open in Rome. The Serbian, a four-time champion at the event, made the final last year (lost to Zverev). That left him with 600 points to defend at the start of the week, points he can ill afford to lose after having already sunk to his lowest ranking since October 2006. But will he be able to get past Ramos Vinolas, who has found some form himself?
Djokovic and Ramos Vinolas have met five-times so far in their careers and the head-to-head does not make good reading for the Spaniard. He has lost all five matches without winning a set. Their first meeting came in 2015 on the hard courts in Indian Wells, with Djokovic triumphing 7-5 6-3. He was similarly comfortable in their second meeting of 2015, defeating Ramos Vinolas 6-1 6-4 in the second round in Monte Carlo, with the Serb going onto win the title in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.
Their paths did not cross in 2016, but the rivalry was renewed in 2017 in the Davis Cup tie between Spain and Serbia. Djokovic won comfortably 6-3 6-4 6-2 in front of the Belgrade crowd to give Serbia a 1-0 lead in the tie. They took full advantage, advancing 4-1. Djokovic defeated Ramos Vinolas again in the fourth round at Roland Garros later that year, advancing a 7-6 6-3 6-1 winner. He then bested the Spaniard in the Australian Open third round earlier this year, 6-2 6-3 6-3.
Path to the third round
Djokovic began his Italian Open in the first round for the first time ever, having been amongst the top eight seeds on every other occasion he has played in Rome. That saw him drawn against Alexandr Dolgopolov, the Ukrainian who has been ranked as high as world #13. But Dolgopolov’s ultra-attacking game has never been well-suited to the clay, and Djokovic brushed him aside 6-1 6-3. Djokovic was made to work hard in the early going against Nikoloz Basilashvili, but eventually prevailed comfortably 6-4 6-2.
Ramos Vinolas opened in Rome against Federico Delbonis of Argentina, finishing strongly to overcome Delbonis 2-6 7-5 6-1 for just his fifth clay court win of the season, a downturn in form that has seen Ramos Vinolas slip outside the top 40. He then won an exceptionally close contest with John Isner, that perhaps unsurprisingly given the American #1’s booming serve, featured three tiebreaks. Despite dropping the first, Ramos Vinolas rebounded to win in three.
How do they match up?
In Basilashvili and Dolgopolov, Djokovic faced two aggressive ball strikers that at times brought the best out of him defensively, particularly Basilashvili, who exerted real pressure on Djokovic in the first set. Against Ramos Vinolas, the Serb will find himself up against a craftier operator. Ramos Vinolas does not lack weapons, his forehand particularly will be a source of real danger for the former world #1. But Ramos Vinolas is also more comfortable trading from the baseline for an extended period.
This match will thus likely present a real test for Djokovic’s legs and his mental stamina. Having played just fourteen matches this year, with a record of eight wins and six defeats, the Serbian is nowhere as match hardened as he typically would be at this stage of the season. Ramos Vinolas has already played twelve more matches this season, and the Spaniard has had an unusual number of early exits. Djokovic has faded in third sets recently, which Ramos Vinolas is sure to be aware of.
Both these men are searching for form, but Djokovic looks to be having the better luck in his search right now. Ramos Vinolas will be desperately disappointed with how his clay court season has gone so far, this week is the first time he has won more than two matches at a single tournament. It’s still far too soon to talk about a Djokovic resurgence, but the Serb will make his first quarterfinal of the season at Ramos Vinolas’ expense.