Rome: Novak Djokovic eased into the Italian Open quarter-finals on Tuesday after breezing past Cameron Norrie 6-3, 6-4, although there was tension with the Briton after the top seed was hit by a smash.
The Serb has reached the last eight in each of his previous 16 appearances in the Italian capital and he did again on Tuesday, getting past Norrie on centre court to set up a clash with Holger Rune.
It will be a rematch of last year’s Paris Masters final, when the young Dane won his first Masters 1000 title by beating Djokovic in a thrilling match.
“Even though he’s really young, I know his game quite well. He’s been on the tour now for last few years playing some great tennis, particularly in the last I would say six to eight months,” said Djokovic.
“He’s in very good form and I look forward to a challenge. I think it’s going to be a very physical match.”
Djokovic is gunning for a seventh title on clay in Rome and his chances have been made a little bit easier by the shock elimination of Carlos Alcaraz on Monday.
Alcaraz, who won two consecutive tournaments at Barcelona and Madrid, will take world number one spot from Djokovic on May 22 but it is the 22-time Grand Slam champion who could go into Roland Garros with yet another title under his belt.
Djokovic won the first three games against Norrie and closed out the first set with little fuss, without needing to be at his best.
The 35-year-old then took the second set to 2-1 with a break, but in the next game Norrie broke back while angering Djokovic with a smash which hit him on the back of his left leg.
Norrie had the whole court to put the ball away as Djokovic had given up on the point and was walking back to the service line.
Bringing the fire
Norrie raised his hand to apologise but at the changeover after the Briton moved to 3-2 Djokovic gave him another long beady-eyed stare as he passed him.
And after Djokovic sealed victory with his second match point he gave Norrie a cursory handshake at the net, while avoiding eye contact and exchanging no words with his dispatched opponent.
Djokovic later explained that he had been irritated by Norrie’s on-court behaviour since the start of the match, doing “things that we players know in the locker room it’s not fair play”.
“He’s very nice guy off the court, so I don’t understand this kind of attitude on the court, to be honest. But it is what it is. He brought the fire, and I responded to that,” said Djokovic.
“I’m not going to allow someone behaving like this just bending my head. I’m going to respond to that.
“That’s all it is. What happens on the court, we leave it on the court, and we move on.”
Fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Lorenzo Sonego 6-3, 7-6 (7/3) in a third-round match which was suspended on Monday due to the rain, and will take on another Italian in Lorenzo Musetti in the last 16 on Tuesday night.
Iga Swiatek will bid to continue her blistering start to the tournament when she faces Donna Vekic.
World number one Swiatek has won 13 straight matches in Rome and her bid for a third title in as many years has been boosted by seeds two to six all being eliminated.