After a break of more than 200 days and up against a recent US Open semifinalist, there was plenty of reason to wonder how Rafael Nadal might fare in his first match on the ATP Tour since the COVID-19 shutdown.
But then again, he is the King of Clay for a reason.
The Spaniard showed no signs of rust in his first competitive tennis match since February, blowing out Pablo Carreno Busta 6-1, 6-1 in his opening match the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome on Wednesday.
The nine-time Italian Open champion was imperious from start to finish in his return to his favourite surface, breaking serve five times and striking 20 winners to just 11 unforced errors.
Both sets were only competitive in the early games. Carreno Busta only managed to hold his opening service game in each set and reached 1-all before Nadal steamrolled the rest of the way.
Nadal extended his winning streak to six matches, and his sets won streak to 12, as he was coming off a title run in Acapulco where he did not lose a set before COVID-19 forced the tour to shut down for just over five months.
He has not lost a set since the Australian Open quarterfinals against Dominic Thiem and has not lost a set before a tiebreak since the second set of his fourth-round meeting in Melbourne with Nick Kyrgios.
Nadal doing Nadal things
With the long layoff, there were questions about how Nadal would fare in his first match since Feb. 29. And the opening game of the match did little to reassure anyone as the Spaniard blew a 40-love lead and was forced to save a break point before holding serve.
But after that, the King of Clay reminded everyone why he is smack in the middle of the GOAT debate.
Carreno Busta failed to convert that break point in the opening game, which proved to be his only chance to steal a game on his opponent’s serve. Nadal would not trail on his own serve once after his opening service game and was only pushed to deuce once.
On the ground, the Spaniard looked like his usual self, covering the baseline like a cheetah and firing every ball back at his countryman with his trademark topspin.
At no point in the match did Carreno Busta look in control. He swung for the fences and connected occasionally, but Nadal’s consistency was far too much to handle.
The only criticism that could really be made of Nadal in the match was his shots lacked depth at times and there were a few instances where he left some groundstrokes short only to then fire a shot long. But these miscalculations were few and far between.
For the most part, Nadal was controlling his shots beautifully, sending divebombs from side-to-side until his opponent could run no more.
He finished the opening set by winning five straight games, capping it off with back-to-back aces and, after Carreno Busta held his opening game of the second, the King of Clay won six straight games to book his place in round three.
In total, Nadal won 57 percent of his opponent’s service points.
Carreno Busta out of gas
The draw was considered unkind to Nadal was it spat out Carreno Busta, who just last week reached the semifinals of the US Open (and was only a set away from the final) and was considered to be in peak form.
Even a player at their best is often in over their head against Nadal on clay. But Carreno Busta looked far from the form that took him to the final four in New York last week.
The world No. 18 looked sluggish late in both sets. Once he fell behind a break, it seemed like his will to complete completely evaporated. He was lazily swinging at every ball and struggling to find the court. After a while, he barely moved to chase down balls.
The Gijon, Spain-native could not have asked for a tougher opponent under normal circumstances. But given that he was in New York just a few days ago, his exhaustion was completely exploited by one of the most physically demanding opponents in the game.
When Nadal was serving for the opening set, he hit a slice backhand just a few feet to Carreno Busta’s backhand side. The US Open semifinalist did not take a single step to chase down the slow ball that was only a step or so away. The ball skidded away for a winner and Nadal followed it up with consecutive aces, neither of which Carreno Busta made an effort to touch.
At that point in the set, how much of his lack of effort was physical or mental is not clear. Either way, he barely put up a fight.
Not that it was likely to help given Nadal’s high level.
The King of Clay’s quest to add a fourth tournament to his double-digit title collection will continue when he takes on either Dusan Lajovic or W&S Open runner-up Milos Raonic in the third round.