Novak Djokovic said Thursday that Carlos Alcaraz is the man to beat at the Italian Open, but reassured fans that he "feels good" after his recent elbow injury.
Top seed Djokovic comes into the clay-court tournament, where he has been champion six times, braced to lose top spot in the world rankings to Alcaraz.
The flamboyant Spaniard, fresh from back-to-back clay titles in Barcelona and Madrid, just needs to play a match in the Italian capital to return to the summit ahead of the French Open which starts later this month.
"He's going to be number one after this tournament and if it happens it will be deservedly so. He plays very impressive tennis, a great level. He's the player to beat on this surface no doubt," said Djokovic, who starts his title defence against Argentina's Tomas Etcheverry on Friday.
Djokovic won a record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam at the Australian Open in January but missed the American hard-court swing in March due to his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid.
The 35-year-old has endured a tough start to the European clay-court season, being eliminated in the last 16 at the Monte Carlo Masters, in the quarter-finals at Banja Luka and then pulling out of Madrid with his elbow problem.
However Djokovic said that he had overcome the physical problems which have blighted this part of his season.
"It's all good. There are always some things here and there that bother you at this level," he added.
"It's normal. When you're not 20-25 anymore you experience that a bit more than what used to be the case.
"I feel good… Historically throughout my career Rome has been a very nice tournament for me, I had success in it many times, got to finals.
"It's my most successful clay court event. Coming into the French Open it can be a great springboard for what's coming up in Paris where I want to be at my best."
While Djokovic plots a seventh title in Rome, women's world number two Aryna Sabalenka's hopes of a maiden crown in the Italian capital were crushed.
The Australian Open champion, fresh from a clay court title in Madrid last weekend, lost 7-6 (7/4), 6-2 to US world number 134 Sofia Kenin.
Kenin's victory was her first against a top-10 rival since shocking world number one Ashleigh Barty on her way to her surprise Australian Open title three years ago.
Sabalenka had not been defeated before the quarter-finals of any event this year and came into Rome as the match-win leader in 2023 with 29 match wins.
"Obviously super happy, I played really well," former world number four Kenin said.
"Of course she's had some great results, great year, so of course going into the match there's not much pressure on my side."
In another shock, Taylor Townsend, ranked a lowly 168, stunned third-ranked Jessica Pegula 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to also make the third round.
Townsend's only previous top-10 victory came during a fourth-round run at the 2019 US Open, where she beat Simona Halep, then ranked fourth in the world. She next faces China's Wang Xiyu.
"It was 100 percent mental for me. I knew I didn't have anything to lose. … I just felt super prepared," left-hander Townsend told Tennis Channel.
"I tried to stay as free as possible and have a lot of fun out there, and I did."
World number five Coco Gauff eased into the third round with a 6-0, 6-1 defeat of Yulia Putintseva in just under an hour.
"She's obviously a tricky player, has some big wins. Made the quarters of the French Open a couple times. I know clay is her surface. It's also kind of mine, too, so it was a good match today," said Gauff, the 2022 French Open runner-up.
Former world number one Victoria Azarenka ended Sloane Stephens' six-match winning streak 6-4, 6-3 in a tie which featured 10 breaks of serve.