Competing for the first time in 200 days, the nine-time champion Rafael Nadal made a great start in Rome. Sidelined since the end of February due to the coronavirus, Nadal decided to stay away from Cincinnati and the US Open, throwing all the cards on clay and entering Rome as the favorite ahead of Roland Garros.
Expecting a shaky start after not playing for so long, Nadal didn't need time to find the rhythm, ousting the US Open semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta 6-1, 6-1 before toppling Dusan Lajovic to find himself in the 15th Rome quarter-final.
Seeking the tenth victory over Diego Schwartzman from as many encounters, Nadal suffered a 6-2, 7-5 loss in just over two hours, leaving the tournament earlier than expected and going back to the drawing board ahead of Roland Garros.
Unlike in the opening two matches, nothing worked Nadal's way on Saturday night, starting with the humidity and an outstanding rival on the other side of the net who did everything right to topple Rafa in straight sets.
Diego knows how to battle against the Spaniard, challenging him on clay before but never taking the next step and enduring the entire clash. He did that last night, dominating the opener and staying focused in set number two to secure the semis' place.
Rafa was outplayed on both serve and return, making way too many mistakes and never looking comfortable. Diego clinched five breaks from massive 54% points taken on the return, neutralizing Rafa's initial shot and getting broken only twice to move over the top in style.
Firing 31 winners and 17 unforced errors, the Argentine controlled the rallies' pace, mixing up his game to outplay the toughest rival on the slowest surface. Rafa gave his best in set number two, although it wasn't enough to keep him safe, heading back home to Spain and hitting the practice courts to improve certain things that didn't work well.
Speaking about the loss, the Spaniard praised the opponent and mentioned his serve as the weakest element of his game, knowing how to fix the issues and hoping for a better run at Roland Garros.
Rafael Nadal got broken five times against Diego Schwartzman in Rome.
"We can find excuses, but I didn't play well enough. Then we have to think internally, 'Why? How can I fix it?' Now is not the moment to find excuses. It's the moment to accept that I didn't play well enough; it wasn't my night at all.
He played a great match, and I think I didn't. When this happens, you have to lose. These things can happen. After such a long time without competing, I played two good matches and a bad one against a good opponent today. That's how it is.
I want to congratulate Diego, and I'm going to keep working. It's an exceptional and unpredictable year. I will probably go back home and then let's see what's going on in Paris. I did my job here. I did a couple of things well and other things bad, and that's it.
At least I played three matches and fought until the end. You can't expect to score victory after getting broken that often; I will have to fix that, and I know how to do it. I'm going to keep working and keep practicing with the right attitude and try to give myself a chance to be ready," Rafael Nadal said.