Among the top male players, Rafael Nadal had been the most circumspect about making his post-shutdown return. Asked about the prospect of returning to the tour in the early summer, he instead talked about how he wished he could just do something as simple as get together with his friends and family. Nadal had, after all, seen what the virus did to his native Spain, and what it continues to do even now. Unlike like most of his colleagues, Rafa didn’t play exhibition events during the lockdown, even those in his home country. Faced with the choice of whether to defend his 2019 US Open title, he decided against making the trip to New York.
So the sight of Rafa on court in Rome was a heartening one, a small sign of normalcy in an abnormal time. Even more heartening—for his fans at least—he looked and played like his normal self. During the coin toss, he leaped just as high in the air as he always has. The only difference was the bight yellow mask he wore, to match his bright yellow shirt. Nadal was a little more tan, a little more clean shaven, maybe a few pounds lighter. He was back on his favorite surface, at a tournament he has won nine times. He was ready.
The same could not be said for Nadal’s opponent and countryman, Pablo Carreno Busta. Coming in, there seemed to be three possibilities for PCB in this match: He might be sharp after his semifinal run at the US Open; he might be weary after multiple five-setters and a trans-Atlantic flight; or he might not be prepared to make the shift from hard courts to clay. The answer turned out to be a combination of the last two, because after a few decent games at the start of the match, he put up only token resistance down the stretch. It probably didn’t help that PCB was 0-5 against Rafa, and had managed to win just one set in those five matches.
Nadal saved a break point in his opening service game, then broke with a crosscourt backhand winner to go up 3-1. That was enough to open the floodgates. From there, Rafa looked like Rafa. He hit forehand winners down the line, crosscourt, and inside out. He tracked down drop shots and flicked them away. He stood as far back as he could to return serve, a much-derided tactic that now has a successful disciple in Dominic Thiem. Nadal slid out to his forehand side and short-hopped hard-hit balls into the open court. He swung a crosscourt forehand pass by PCB on the dead run. He also missed a forehand return on a break point, the way he has some many times in the past, but he finished the first set with two aces. Nadal’s timing wasn’t off, and his speed wasn’t diminished. He even hit a down-the-line backhand winner.
Nadal, who will play either Milos Raonic or Dusan Lajovic next, won 6-1, 6-1, in 73 minutes, which is about as fast as Rafa can finish a match. The King of Clay did King of Clay things, and the world became a little more normal because of it.