Former world number one Novak Djokovic is slowly but surely finding his best tennis once again. The four-time Internazionali BNL d'Italia champion advanced to just his second semifinal of the year at the Mutua Madrid Open last week. Despite, losing to his rival Rafael Nadal for the first time since the French Open final in 2014, and winning seven consecutive encounters, he found his best form in that second set. Djokovic will be looking to continue to get more some confidence-boosting wins under his belt at the Foro Italico, ahead of his big title defence at the French Open.
Bedene's notable results leading up to Rome
Djokovic begins his quest for a fifth title at the Foro Italico against world number 55 Aljaz Bedene. The British number three is currently ranked at 55 in the world. In fact, there are four Brits ranked inside the top 60 with Andy Murray, the current world number one, Bedene is two spots behind Kyle Edmund, and one spot ahead of Dan Evans. The Brit has an 8-7 record on the ATP World Tour. He lost to Benoit Paire in the quarterfinals of the Aircel Chennai Open. More misery ensued for the Slovenian-born at the Australian Open as he suffered a disappointing four-set loss to Victor Estrella Burgos in the first round.
Alexander Zverev sent Bedene packing in a close three-set encounter in Montpellier. Djokovic's Australian Open conqueror Denis Istomin defeated the Brit in straight sets in the first round of Rotterdam and more early exits followed in Marseille and Miami. However, Bedene advanced to his second career final in the new hard court event in Budapest. The world number 55 recorded straight sets victories over Marius Copil, Robin Haase, Ivo Karlovic and Laso Djere but he was outclassed by Pouille in the final. Bedene pushed last year's Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic in his first round match in Istanbul, but he fell to the Canadian in three tight sets.
Djokovic's notable results leading up to Rome
The second seed's 2017 campaign has been indifferent. He won his first title of the year against top seed Andy Murray in a three-set thriller in Doha. After losing to Istomin in Melbourne, Djokovic suffered defeats to Nick Kyrgios in Acapulco and Indian Wells. He was unable to defend his title in Miami due to an elbow injury. However, he began his clay court preparations in Monte Carlo but he struggled for form once more as Gilles Simon and Pablo Carreno Busta pushed him to three sets.
His luck eventually ran out in the quarterfinals against David Goffin. Nevertheless, Djokovic fired his coaching team earlier this month, and the two-time champion has arguably played his best tennis of the season in Madrid. He overcame Nicolas Almagro in three sets in the second round, and he recorded his first straight sets win in two months against Feliciano Lopez. He received a walkover into the semifinals as Kei Nishikori had a wrist injury but Nadal was too good for the 12-time Grand Slam champion in the semifinals. Despite, losing to the Spaniard in their 50th career meeting, Djokovic showed some glimpses of his former self in his semifinal defeat to Nadal.
Breakdown of their rivalry
This will be the third encounter between Bedene and Djokovic, and the first one outside of Grand Slam events. The former world number one defeated Bedene in their first-round meeting at the Australian Open in 2015, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. The Serb followed this up a year later with another straight sets victory at the French Open in 2016, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3.
Who reaches the third round?
The four-time champion has seen fellow former world number one Rafael Nadal join him on 30 Masters 1000 titles in Madrid, and the duo are projected to meet in the semifinals at the Foro Italico. Djokovic has been linked heavily with Andre Agassi as the potential replacement of his coach Boris Becker, who left his position as his coach last year. The Serb has admitted that he lacked motivation after completing his Career Grand Slam at the French Open last year.
Furthermore, Djokovic's best tennis isn't far away and Bedene will be a good test for the Serb. Djokovic knows that he will have to serve well against Bedene, and he would like to extend the points in long rallies. The world number 55's serve is not as strong as the four-time champion's serve but he does occasionally get a few aces. Bedene is good on clay with the third round at the French Open last year, the furthest he has been at a Slam. It may be a close opening set but the Serb should have too much for Bedene, and ultimately, the former world number one should book his spot in the third round.
This is the third match scheduled on the Centre Court, and the winner will have a difficult third round clash with 15th seed Pablo Carreno Busta, Gilles Simon, Nick Kyrgios or Roberto Bautista Agut, who all are good clay court players.
Prediction: Djokovic in straight sets.