ROME – The red clay courts of the Italian Open are a bit of heaven for Novak Djokovic after a week on the experimental blue surface in Madrid.
The top-ranked Djokovic was one of several top players who were highly critical of the blue clay tested at the Madrid Open, especially after he lost to fellow Serb Janko Tipsarevic in the quarterfinals.
"It feels great," Djokovic said Sunday. "After that blue clay, this clay seems like paradise."
"The most basic thing you have in our sport — the most important — is the movement," Djokovic said. "If you cannot be in balance for the ball, and to hit the ball, then everything becomes twice as difficult. That's the biggest difference. Here you can actually be on the ball and slide well, where there you were slipping and falling down."
Rome is the last major warmup before the French Open begins in two weeks, and winning Roland Garros is a "top priority" for Djokovic after winning every other Grand Slam beside Paris last year.
But in addition to dealing with the blue clay, Djokovic also had to play while mourning the death of his grandfather in Monte Carlo a few weeks ago, losing a lopsided final to Rafael Nadal.
"I don't think my preparation for Roland Garros has been disturbed in any way because I feel like I've practiced very hard the last five weeks," Djokovic said. "Right now I'm just thinking about Rome."
Djokovic, who beat Nadal in last year's Rome final, could face Australian teenager Bernard Tomic in his opening match this year.
First-round play at the Foro Italico began Sunday with former French Open winner Juan Carlos Ferrero beating Kevin Anderson of South Africa 6-4, 7-5. Also, Italian wild card Paolo Lorenzi held off Russian veteran Nikolay Davydenko 6-3, 2-6, 6-3.
The top eight seeds have first-round byes.
Fourth-ranked Andy Murray is feeling healthy again after skipping Madrid due to a back injury.
"I'm pretty good," he said. "I've taken 10 days off from Barcelona and I got here on Tuesday evening, so I've been practicing."
While Murray didn't do it on purpose, avoiding the blue clay could turn out to be an advantage.
"It was my decision to stop. ... People have been saying that I was much smarter than they were," Murray said. "Obviously the conditions there were not ideal and with the French Open just a couple of weeks away, I'm not going to have to make adjustments which I would have had to do from Madrid."
The women's tournament begins Monday, with defending champion Maria Sharapova looking to bounce back from a quarterfinal loss to Serena Williams in the Madrid quarterfinals.
Sharapova opened the clay-court season by beating top-ranked Victoria Azarenka in the Stuttgart final.
Having struggled on clay at the beginning of her career, Sharapova cited improved fitness as the reasons for her recent success.
"I only play three or four tournaments a year on clay and you need to be physically ready," she said. "You often have five days in a row with three-hour matches, and so I have improved on recovering effectively and this has given me confidence."
Last year's French Open winner Li Na of China has had a slower start to her clay season, losing in the quarterfinals in both Stuttgart and Madrid. But she's finally adapted to her newfound superstar status in China.
"Before, even if I won the tournament after I could do whatever I wanted," she said. "But after I won (Roland Garros), wherever I go people are like 'Ah, this is Li Na.' I really didn't know what I should do."
Li lost in the second round of Wimbledon last year, then was stunned by Romanian teenager Simona Halep in the first round of the U.S. Open. She opened this year by reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open.
"The worst time for me was last year, because after the French I had to do many things (off) the tennis court," she said. "I was losing concentration on the court. There was so many things coming into my life that I had never experienced before. (From) the beginning this year, I know — I'm still a tennis player, tennis is my job."