Rafael Nadal was the player to beat since Roland Garros last year, claiming two Majors and moving in front of Novak Djokovic to clinch the year-end no. 1 honor. The Spaniard led his country towards the Davis Cup Finals crown in Madrid, hoping for more of the same at the ATP Cup in January.
Rafa and Roberto Bautista Agut led Spain into another final at team competition, losing to Serbia 2-1. Nadal lost the ATP throne following the Australian Open quarter-final loss to Dominic Thiem, bouncing back at the end of February to conquer the 85th ATP crown in Acapulco.
Rafa stayed at home during the coronavirus outbreak, not training for two months and making a slow return at his Academy in Mallorca, working on clay and opting to skip Cincinnati and the US Open. In his first match in 200 days, the nine-time Rome champion made a perfect comeback in the Italian capital, beating the US Open semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta 6-1, 6-1 in 73 minutes.
Entering one of his favorite events on the Tour, Nadal didn't know what to expect in his first match after such a long break. Still, he found the rhythm on both serve and return to sail towards the finish line, happy with the way he performed.
Rafa served at 49% but no one could notice that, dropping eight points behind the initial shot and fending off one break point. On the other hand, he stole Carreno Busta's serve five times to control the scoreboard and move into the third round.
From 40-0, Nadal had to play against a break chance in the first game, erasing it with a powerful serve and putting his name on the scoreboard when Carreno Busta sprayed a backhand error. Pablo forced Rafa's mistake in the second game to fend off a break chance and level the score at 1-1, with Nadal holding at love with a service winner for 2-1.
Carreno Busta wasted a game point at 1-2, suffering a break after a backhand crosscourt winner from Nadal, who cemented the advantage with a hold at 15.
Rafael Nadal made an impressive start in Rome and he wants to improve his game more.
The younger Spaniard placed a backhand long to suffer a break at love in game six, allowing Rafa to wrap up the set with a hold at love a few minutes later thanks to an ace.
Pablo fended off two break chances with winners in the second set's opening game, before getting broken in game three. Nadal created a break chance with a forehand winner, closing it with a volley winner at the net to forge a set and a break advantage.
The nine-time champion held after deuce to open a 3-1 gap, clinching another break when Pablo hit a forehand wide and moving closer to the finish line. A backhand winner secured the sixth game for Rafa, who moved over the top with the third straight break, making an impressive start after not competing for over half a year.
"I have to improve some things to be competitive at Roland Garros. The only way to achieve that is to hit the practice court and work with passion and intensity and play as many competitive matches ahead of Paris. I made a positive start today, earning a chance to fight for the victory and another encounter here in Rome on Friday.
I have never taken Rome as preparation for some other tournament. It is one of our sport's most important events, and I'm always motivated to do well here. The situation is far from normal this year, but I will still try to give my best," Rafael Nadal said.