Rafael Nadal plays – and wins – first match since February, in pursuit of 10th Rome title
“I’m excited about going back to competition, without big expectations.”
These continue to be strange times for tennis.
Who would have thought, after the usual sun-drenched month in Australia, that the next big hot, hard-court tournaments would not emerge until August, with the very first men’s Masters of the year?
Who would have expected that the handful of clay events making up the South American ‘golden swing’ in February would be the last clay tournaments for seven months?
Or that, in the interim, five Masters events and the entire grass season, including Wimbledon, would be abandoned?
And once tennis did get underway, in New York, that the biggest and loudest Major of them all would be played in near silence, in complete lock-down, as the coronavirus pandemic did its worst?
Yet now, in the aftermath of a US Open that did not feature either defending champion, a glimmer of light has emerged back in Europe, where the Internazionali BNL d’Italia got under way this week on Rome’s clay.
A glimmer of light because the Foro Italico is one of the iconic venues in tennis, and because the world No2 and nine-time champion Rafael Nadal has emerged onto the competitive tennis stage for the first time in pursuit of No10.
Certainly, the glorious Court Centrale and Court Pietrangeli are missing the unique sound-track of passionate Italian fans—players are still plying their trade behind closed doors—but there is still so much to relish.
Because Nadal opted out of the trip to North America, he has been able to hone his clay tennis—as if he needed to—for an assault on the Rome title and, soon after, the French Open. He arrived in the Eternal City last Wednesday, and with a bye in the first round, it has been a full week before he faced a man in earnest on Court Centrale.
That unfortunate opponent was compatriot Pablo Carreno Busta, who impressed at the US Open to reach the semis, and thus came to Rome back inside the top 20. The two men last played in the third round at the Australian Open, where Nadal won for the loss of just seven games.
In his Zoom press conference ahead of the tournament, Nadal was asked about his fitness, given that he had devoted plenty of time to training on clay during the lock-down. He demurred.
“No, I am similar to always, maybe a little bit worse, as I didn’t compete in six months. To feel 100 percent, you need matches. But here I am. I arrived in plenty of time to try to have the right practice.
“I know I have a tough first round against Pablo, I think he’s playing great… [But] I’m excited about going back to competition, without big expectations. Expectation is always to go on court today and try to feel myself competitive, that is the first goal… Then I will see how I feel and what kind of goals I can look for.”
His primary goal, aside from a 10th Rome Masters, is surely a 13th French Open title: That would take his tally to 20, and equal the record of the injury-absent Roger Federer.
This week, at least, Nadal knows he cannot meet Dominic Thiem. The world No3 could not manage the swift turn-around after winning his first Major title in New York. Yet Thiem has reached at least the semis in his last four Roland Garros appearances, and lost out to Nadal in the last two finals.
Nadal admitted that he had watched the early stages of the US Open final, and was full of praise for Thiem.
“I’m happy for Dominic. He’s somebody who deserves to win a big title. He’s a super hard worker. Very focused on his goals. Good person, good human person. He deserves it.”
But what were Nadal’s thoughts on Roland Garros, where the French Federation intends to play the tournament with ticket-holders—albeit a reduced number, and separated into zones around each of the three show courts. Nadal clearly has doubts about the viability of such a plan.
“I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what the situation’s gonna look like in Roland Garros. Let’s see how the virus evolves the next couple of weeks. Hopefully is in a good way. Doesn’t look like that, no? So let’s see. We need to be patient and we need to wait [to see] how the situation improves.”
He referred, of course, to the rising COVID-19 infection rate that is spreading its tentacles across Europe in a second wave. But players and fans can only wait and watch. In the meantime, Nadal is enjoying the freedom from worry of playing behind closed doors, and on his favourite surface.
“Rome always is exciting. It’s one of the most important events in the world, without a doubt. At the same time, of course, it will be not the same with no crowd and being in the bubble, not being able to enjoy the city a little bit. But at least we have a tennis tournament here in Rome, no? And that’s positive, and I am happy for that.”
He was even happier after his opening match, in which he hit the clay as though he had never been away, let alone since winning his last tournament in Acapulco in February.
It was, of course, a tall order for Carreno Busta to cope with jet lag and the drastic change of surface in a matter of days, but Nadal ripped through his compatriot for the loss of just two games, 6-1, 6-1, in under an hour and a quarter.
He said after his win:
“It’s good to be back on the court. Obviously the feeling is not the best, playing without the crowds, especially here—the crowds in Rome are very enthusiastic…
“[But] it was a perfect start for me. It was solid, good shots on the forehand and backhand. I didn’t expect to play that well… Today has been a positive start for me. [And] I always come here with the highest motivation possible.”
Nadal’s scheduled first seed is Milos Raonic, with Andrey Rublev or Diego Schwartzman lined up for the quarters. However, No3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas lost his opener against the exciting young Italian, Jannik Sinner, who will next face No15 seed Grigor Dimitrov.
In the top half, led by No1 Novak Djokovic, there were a number of upsets early on. Djokovic cruised passed the Italian wild card Salvatore Caruso, but will now play compatriot Filip Krajinovic, who beat No16 seed Felix Auger-Alisassime in the first round and then Marco Cecchinato.
Also gone from this quarter is Stan Wawrinka, who fell to another of the rising Italian teenagers making an impression on the pro tour, Lorenzo Musetti.
Meanwhile, Djokovic’s potential semi-finalist seeds have also been depleted. After Cristian Garin and Karen Khachanov lost in the first round, No6 seed David Goffin lost to Marin Cilic in the second. Borna Coric also lost his second-round match.