The 22-time Grand Slam champion had to overcome a mid-match lapse before beating Grigor Dimitrov 6-3, 4-6, 6-1 on Sunday to reach the fourth round of the Italian Open.
Struggling with his footwork, complaining about the conditions of the clay on Campo Centrale and protesting line calls, Djokovic lost four consecutive games to hand the second set to Dimitrov, who won 12 straight points at one point during that stretch.
But Djokovic raised his game when it counted most, broke Dimitrov in the opening game of the third, and improved to 11-1 in his career against the Bulgarian.
“The crowd got into it and kind of got behind him and of course with the energy of the place, the (entire) match changed,” Djokovic said. “I dropped my level a bit. But luckily I managed to find it right away in the first game, make that crucial break and kind of shape the momentum to my side. So I’m really pleased with the way I closed out the match.”
Returning from three weeks off because of a lingering issue with his surgically repaired right elbow, Djokovic is aiming for a seventh title in Rome. He’s also preparing for the French Open, which starts in two weeks.
In his previous two tournaments on red clay, Djokovic had consecutive early exits — results that mean he will lose the No. 1 ranking after this tournament to Carlos Alcaraz again. He was also tested by Tomas Martin Etcheverry in his opener in Rome.
Djokovic will next face 13th-seeded Cameron Norrie, who beat Marton Fucsovics 6-2, 7-6 (4).
Earlier, two-time defending champion Iga Swiatek swept aside Lesia Tsurenko 6-2, 6-0 to extend her winning streak at the Foro Italico to 13 matches.
Having routed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-0, 6-0 in her opening match after a bye in the first round, Swiatek has now dropped just two games over four sets.
Swiatek produced 22 winners to her Ukrainian opponent’s two.
“I’m just trying to be consistent and trying to play my game,” Swiatek said. “I treat every match as it is a final. I try to have the right mindset before every match and have the energy up.”
After it was over, Tsurenko had some kind words at the net for Swiatek, who has been wearing a ribbon in Ukraine’s colors pinned to her hat for more than a year.
“She thanked me for supporting Ukraine,” recounted Swiatek, who is Polish. “It’s really nice and I really appreciate that. (But) there’s nothing to kind of thank for, because for me it’s pretty obvious that we should support Ukraine. I will do that until the war is going to end.”
If she raises the trophy again, Swiatek will join Chris Evert and Conchita Martínez as the third woman to win three consecutive titles in Rome.
The top-ranked Swiatek will next meet 21st-seeded Donna Vekic, who rallied past 16th-seeded Liudmila Samsonova 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2.
Coco Gauff, a French Open finalist last year, was beaten by 27th-seeded Marie Bouzkova, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
Also advancing on the red clay was 2019 Roland Garros finalist Marketa Vondrousova, who beat ninth-seeded Maria Sakkari 7-5, 6-3.
Madison Keys advanced to the last 16 when Victoria Azarenka withdrew before their match due to a right leg injury.