What to make from Rafael Nadal’s 2020 ATP return in Rome

Rafael Nadal’s ATP return continued right where he left off: with a dominant win. Here’s a look at his opening match and his chances going forward in 2020.

World #2 and 19-time Grand Slam champion, Rafael Nadal, finally returned to main draw action after a 6-month break. The 2019 US Open champion didn’t fly into the bubble to defend his title, instead opting to train extra on his favorite surface: red clay.

After the shaky start from some of the world’s top stars since the restart, from blown leads and shaky serves to simply subpar play, there were (understandably) a ton of questions regarding how Nadal will perform. Regardless of the immense amount of practice he’s had, match experience is a different animal, even for him.

Additionally, his first-round opponent, Pablo Carreno Busta, has been playing like one of the best players in the ATP since men’s tennis’ August restart. He won the doubles title at the Western & Southern Open and led Alexander Zverev two sets to love at the US Open semifinals before squandering his lead.

Nadal ended up putting on a return clinic in his Round of 32 match against Carreno Busta. Despite the latter serving at 73% on his first serve, the former had absolutely no issue returning serve. He finished the match with 22-of-41 points won on Carreno Busta’s first serve and 10-of-15 on his second.

The dissatisfaction of the tennis community regarding the returner standing close to the back fence once again is proven wrong after Thiem’s US Open title and Nadal’s dominating win yesterday (as if he hasn’t already proved it throughout his career).

Nadal’s 6-1, 6-1 thrashing of the US Open semifinalist didn’t end up perfect; he served only 49% on his first serve. Typical of the champion, however, was how he was able to adapt and respond. He turned his 49% first serve percentage into an incredible 15-of-19 points won on his first and an even-more incredible 16-of-20 points won on his second. He faced only one break point for the entire match and saved it (he converted 5-of-9 break chances on his opponent’s serve).

Carreno Busta is definitely a better hard-court player than he is a clay-courter but given his hot streak over the last month, some went into the match expecting he’d put together a solid match against the King of Clay. That simply didn’t happen, and Nadal picked up right where he left off after winning Roland Garros and Rome last year.

Nadal’s path to a second consecutive title will give him his tenth in Rome and will make him the only man in the Open Era to have won multiple events at least 10 times (he currently has 11 in Monte Carlo). He has a relatively easy path into the quarterfinal, as well. Diego Schwartzman is the highest remaining seed left in Nadal’s half (8th) and possesses the defense and return skills to compete relatively well if the two end up meeting. The Argentinian has only taken two sets off of Nadal in the nine times they’d faced off (none of which he won).

Novak Djokovic is progressing easily through the draw and will face countryman Filip Krajinovic for a spot in the Round of 16. A Djokovic-Nadal battle is likely going to be the final pairing here in Rome and could be the decider to both of their chances at Roland Garros next week (begins Sept. 21st). If Nadal is able to take down the “undefeated” Djokovic, it’ll surely put him as the increasing favorite in Paris. Djokovic, however, will look to distance himself from the field in what could end up being the most statistically dominant season of his career.

The conversation around candidates to reach the finals of Rome this week are centered around teenage sensation, Jannik Sinner. Despite his obvious need for growth (which he’ll surely get as he works up the ATP World Rankings), he’s been playing exceptionally well so far. In his three-set defeat of Stefanos Tsitsipas, he won 7 of his 14 break points and 69% of all points on his serve (compared to Tsitsipas’ 51%). He could be a dangerous first-week player at Roland Garros and couuld serve up an upset or two along the way.

Nadal’s quest for a record-extending 13th Roland Garros title will also put him in a tie with Roger Federer for 20 Grand Slams if he does end up winning. It’ll be an extremely interesting debate between the two, given the fact that Federer doesn’t seem to be ready to win another major title unless it’s on grass.

Nadal continues his week in Rome tomorrow at 1PM EST against Dusan Lajovic for a place in the quarterfinals.