The former world No.1 registered the biggest win of his season by defeating Kei Nishikori 7-5 6-4 in the most high-profile first round clash at a Masters event in quite some time.
Djokovic recovered from a break down to pocket a messy opener, and he pounced in the latter stages of a high quality second set to ensure his stay in the Spanish capital will not be brief.
Nishikori, who reached the final of the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters last month, was left to rue his failure to capitalise on a promising first set position. He lacked belief, perhaps due to his dismal record against the Serbian, and wilted under intense pressure at the business end of both sets.
Djokovic, as has often been the case in his previous meetings with the Japanese, exploited his opponent’s tentative second delivery when it really mattered.
Rarely are two Top 20 players pitted against one another in the first round of such a significant event. It took both competitors a period of time to adjust to the lively conditions, and the action took a while to heat up.
Nishikori was first to make a breakthrough and establish a 3-2 lead, however he was pegged back immediately after an untimely double-fault.
Djokovic’s fine returning, reminiscent of his glory years, helped him carve open two set-points on his rival’s delivery in the ninth game, but he was left frustrated as Nishikori averted danger with some precise baseline-hitting.
It was only a minor setback for the former champion, though, and he converted his third set-point in the 12th game. Djokovic slammed a forehand return winner beyond his static opponent to finally wrestle control.
After sealing the opening gambit, Djokovic bellowed with delight. The 30-year-old had been engaged and determined from the first exchange – and his perseverance earned him the reward he sought.
The quality may have fluctuated throughout the first set, but both players were highly effective behind their respective serves in the second set. The games ticked by at pace and break-point chances were at a premium, however Djokovic made his move as a tiebreak loomed large.
Serving to stay in the match, Nishikori stumbled. Djokovic created a match-point opportunity and gleefully took it when his rival clubbed a forehand beyond the baseline.
It’s a big win for Djokovic and supporters, but if he is to finally build momentum, he must overcome Kyle Edmund or Daniil Medvedev in the second round.
Elsewhere in Madrid, Milos Raonic set up an enticing second round clash with Grigor Dimitrov by beating qualifier, Nicolas Kicker, 6-3 6-2. Benoit Paire edged an all-French affair with Lucas Pouille 6-2 6-3 and Dusan Lajovic upset Karen Khachanov 6-3 6-2.
Diego Schwartzman, Federico Delbonis, Damir Dzumhur and Mikhail Kukushkin also advanced.