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Novak Djokovic serves to Salvatore Caruso at the Italian Open in Rome on Sept. 16, 2020.

Alfredo Falcone/The Associated Press

Novak Djokovic behaved better Wednesday in his first match since being defaulted from the U.S. Open.

The top-ranked Serb was mostly courteous with the chair umpire and had no interaction with the line judges during a 6-3, 6-2 win over local wild-card entry Salvatore Caruso in his opening match at the Italian Open.

Also Wednesday, nine-time Rome champion Rafael Nadal made a solid return to competition after a seven-month absence by beating U.S. Open semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta 6-1, 6-1.

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Nadal had not played a match since winning a title in Acapulco, Mexico, in February – having decided not to play the U.S. Open over travel concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Djokovic’s performance came in sharp contrast to the scene in New York 10 days ago, when he was disqualified for unintentionally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball. Djokovic said earlier this week that the incident taught him “a big lesson.”

“I was actually looking forward to [playing again] as soon as possible after what happened in New York,” Djokovic said. “Because I feel like the sentiment on the court needs to be positive, and I need to kind of remove anything that can possibly cause any kind of issues to me – if there is something.”

When the umpire came down to inspect a ball mark on the red clay early in the first set and made an overrule in Caruso’s favour, Djokovic just replied, “Yup,” and rubbed out the mark with his red sneaker.

When Caruso impressed him – the Italian hit 13 winners to Djokovic’s 12 – Djokovic said, “Bravo.”

“It was a hot day against Caruso, who already played three matches here, a clay court specialist. It was a very good test for me,” Djokovic said. “I’m very pleased with the way I handled myself in important moments.”

Djokovic’s only testy moment came during the third game of the second set, which went to deuce seven times before Djokovic finally broke Caruso’s serve. As the game wore on, Djokovic appeared bothered by crowd noise, even though the Foro Italico is empty of fans this year because of the pandemic.

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The only people inside the stadium were coaches and others working at the tournament.

“Which ones?” the umpire asked Djokovic, trying to figure out who was bothering him.

Djokovic replied curtly: “There’s 10 people in the stands.”

Afterward, Djokovic explained: “It was very, very quiet, which is very unusual to what we are used to here in Rome, which has one of the loudest and most energetic crowd atmospheres on the tour. But there was somebody in the corridor of the stadium that was talking – about five, six people.”

After winning, Djokovic laughed to himself as he performed his usual on-court celebration, waving his arms toward all four sides of the Campo Centrale stands.

“I miss the crowd,” he said. “Italy has a nice tennis tradition and this tournament has been around for many years. It’s a little strange.”

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Djokovic, a four-time Rome champion, next faces fellow Serb Filip Krajinovic, who beat Italian qualifier Marco Cecchinato 6-4, 6-1.

“Filip is someone that I am very close to for many years. I was trying to kind of mentor him in the last seven, eight years,” Djokovic said. “I’m just very, very pleased that he’s doing well.”

Nadal was in control from the start and closed out the first set with two straight aces, one out wide and one down the T. The match ended in 73 minutes.

The 19-time Grand Slam champion even found a solution to the ban on service from ball kids by bringing not one but two towels to the back of the court on each changeover – placing one large bath-size version on the box set up for players and the other on an empty line judge’s chair.

In other second-round matches, Italian teenager Jannik Sinner upset third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-1, 6-7 (9), 6-2 in a matchup of the last two Next Gen ATP Finals champions; and Rome resident Matteo Berrettini defeated Argentina Federico Coria 7-5, 6-1.

Also, Marin Cilic beat sixth-seeded David Goffin 6-2, 6-2, and Italian wild-card entry Stefano Travaglia eliminated U.S. Open quarter-finalist Borna Coric 7-6 (2), 7-5.

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No. 12 seed Denis Shapovalov of Richmond Hill, Ont., faces Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez, while No. 13 seed Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., meets Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic in the second round on Thursday.

In first-round doubles play Wednesday, Raonic and Montreal’s Félix Auger-Aliassime beat American Austin Krajicek and Croatia’s Franko Skugor 7-5, 6-4 on Wednesday.

Shapovalov and India’s Rohan Bopanna downed Argentina’s Guido Pella and Chile’s Cristian Garin 6-4, 6-4.

In the women’s tournament, top-seeded Simona Halep beat Italian wild-card entry Jasmine Paolini 6-3, 6-4, last year’s semi-finalist Kiki Bertens defeated Polona Hercog 6-2, 6-4, and Montenegrin qualifier Danka Kovinic eliminated sixth-seeded Belinda Bencic 6-3, 6-1.

Playing four days after her runner-up finish in the U.S. Open, Victoria Azarenka dispatched 1999 Rome champion Venus Williams 7-6 (7), 6-2 in the day’s only first-round match.

Afterward, Williams consoled herself by taking her dog for a walk around the empty grounds.

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In a first-round doubles match, Toronto’s Sharon Fichman and Russia’s Vera Zvonareva lost 6-4, 6-4 to American Asia Muhammad and Australia’s Arina Rodionova.

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