Novak Djokovic made a winning return to competition in the Monte Carlo Masters on Tuesday but was made to work by his 198th-ranked Russian opponent as two-time defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas advanced when his rival retired 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 anti-Covid vaccination stance. The world number one was in danger of losing the opening set against Russian qualifier Ivan Gakhov before easing through 7-6 (7/5), 6-2 in 1hr 47min.
“I had never seen him play before today, and it’s always difficult to face an opponent you don’t know,” said the Serbian, a winner on clay in Monte Carlo in 2013 and 2015.
Favourite for a third crown in the Principality in the absence of Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz, Djokovic will face either 21st-ranked Lorenzo Musetti or Luca Nardi, 159th, both Italian, for a place in the quarter-finals.
Tsitsipas advanced to the third round after Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi retired with a left wrist issue after just 22 minutes, trailing the Greek 4-1 in the first set.
World number three Tsitsipas next meets either Chilean Nicolas Jarry, ranked 58, or Australian Alexei Popyrin, 94th, for a place in the quarter-finals.
Djokovic is tuning up for a 23rd Grand Slam bid at the French Open. But the game was not as easy as expected with Gakhov taking the first break to lead 4-3.
Djokovic broke back immediately, but could not prevent the tie-break which he wrapped up on his first set point.
The second set was one-sided even though Gakhov hung on until the end.
“It was probably, if you can call it this way, an ugly tennis win for me today,” said Djokovic, who is looking for a record-extending 39th ATP Masters title this week.
“I haven’t played my best, particularly in the first set. And I kind of expected that that was going to happen in a way with swirly conditions, a lot of wind today, changing directions.
“It’s different practising and then playing an official match on clay.
“But all in all, I’m just pleased with the way I held my nerves I think in the important moments and I managed to clinch the two-set win.”
Rublev, Zverev survive
Earlier Andrey Rublev and Alexander Zverev both survived dropping a set, but last year’s runner-up Alejandro Davidovich Fokina fell at the first hurdle.
Fifth-seeded Rublev, recipient of a first-round bye, rallied to beat Spaniard Jaume Munar 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 in their second-round tie.
German Zverev made a hesitant start to his clay-court season before seeing off Kazakh Alexander Bublik 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 in the first round.
“The feeling was, ‘No way, I might be out in the first round of Monaco’,” said Rublev, 25, who will face fellow Russian Khachanov, Dan Evans or qualifier Ilya Ivashka in the third round.
Zverev was back on clay for the first time since he retired in the French Open semi-finals last year against Rafael Nadal with an ankle injury.
The 13th-seeded German took just under two hours to move past Bublik.
“It felt awful at times to be honest,” Zverev said.
“It usually takes me five or 10 minutes to get used to a clay court, but this year was a bit 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 semi-finalist, will next play Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut for a place in the third round.
Spaniard Davidovich Fokina fell 6-2, 6-2 to ninth seed Karen Khachanov.
Khachanov took 75 minutes to brush past Davidovich Fokina, who lost the final last year 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.
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)