ROME — Novak Djokovic is right where he wants to be after a slow start to his clay-court season.
Back at the Italian Open — the clay event where he’s had his most success.
The top-ranked Serb is a six-time champion in Rome and a six-time runner-up.
“Historically throughout my career, Rome has always been a very nice tournament for me,” Djokovic said Thursday. “Hopefully it can serve, again, as a great, great springboard for me to what’s coming up in Paris where I want to play my best.”
The French Open, the clay-court Grand Slam, starts at the end of the month, and Djokovic is hoping to add a third title at Roland Garros after his victories in 2016 and 2021.
Djokovic is returning after three weeks off due to a lingering issue with his surgically repaired right elbow.
In his previous two tournaments on red clay, Djokovic had consecutive early exits.
He lost in the round of 16 at Monte Carlo to Lorenzo Musetti. Then Dusan Lajovic beat him in the quarterfinals of the Srpska Open in Bosnia and Herzegovina, dealing him his first loss to a countryman in 11 years.
“It’s all good,” Djokovic said of his elbow. “I mean, there’s always some things here and there that bother you on this level. It’s normal.
“Also when you’re not 25 anymore, I guess you experience that a bit more than what used to be the case,” added Djokovic, who will turn 36 the day after this tournament ends. “It takes a little bit more time to recover.”
Djokovic, who won the Australian Open at the start of the year, is clearly aiming to peak around the Grand Slams.
After a first-round bye, he’ll open with a night match Friday against Tomas Martin Etcheverry, an Argentine who reached clay finals in Santiago, Chile, and Houston earlier this year.
No matter his results at the Foro Italico, Djokovic will cede the No. 1 ranking back to Carlos Alcaraz after this tournament.
Alcaraz, who is making his Rome debut, is seeded second and in the opposite side of the draw from Djokovic.
While they have been trading the top spot back and forth, it’s the first time this year that both Djokovic and Alcaraz have entered the same tournament.
Alcaraz missed the Australian Open due to injury and Djokovic missed the Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells, California, and Miami, because he was prevented from entering the United States since he is not vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Then Djokovic missed the Madrid Open because of his elbow. Alcaraz won the tournament on Sunday.
“It is strange that we haven’t been in the same draw since the beginning of the season. Due to the circumstances on both sides, that didn’t happen,” Djokovic said. “He’s been playing some very impressive tennis, a great level. He’s the player to beat on this surface, no doubt.
“Of course, it depends if (Rafael) Nadal is going to play in (the) French Open or not. But Alcaraz is one of the top favorites without any dilemma.”
Nadal, who holds the record of 10 titles in Rome, is not playing as he remains hampered by a nagging hip injury, leaving his status for Roland Garros in question.