Nine-times champion Rafa Nadal showed little signs of rust when he played his first match in 200 days as he beat fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta 6-1 6-1 in the Italian Open in Rome on Wednesday.
Nadal, who received a bye into the second round, has not played a tournament since winning his 85th singles title in Acapulco, having skipped the Western & Southern Open and the U.S. Open in New York due to COVID-19 concerns.
The match was also Nadal’s first on clay in 465 days after his French Open triumph last year and the 34-year-old Spaniard sent an ominous message to the field as he dominated the U.S. Open semi-finalist from start at an empty Foro Italico.
“It’s good to be back on the Tour but obviously the feeling is not the best playing without crowds,” Nadal said. “At least there’s one positive thing, the sport is back.
Nadal broke in the fourth game to take a 3-1 lead and did not look back, winning the last 10 points in the opening set to put down a marker for Carreno Busta who struggled with the pace of the ball on clay after two hardcourt tournaments.
The second set was more of the same as a visibly jumpy Nadal could not wait to get going between games and the world number two wrapped up the match in 73 minutes with 20 winners while Carreno Busta made 28 unforced errors.
“I played a good match, maybe he was a little bit tired from New York (where) he played an amazing tournament,” Nadal added. “It’s a perfect start for me, I played solid, some good shots with the forehand and backhand.”
Italian wildcard Jannik Sinner pulled off a stunning upset in the second round when he beat third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-1 6-7(9) 6-2 to take revenge on the Greek who beat him in straight sets at the same stage last year.
Sinner, 19, led 6-1 5-2 before Tsitsipas mounted a comeback and saved match points in the tiebreak, but Sinner clinched the decider as Tsitsipas racked up 58 unforced errors in the contest.
Sinner will next face Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, who eased past Yoshihito Nishioka 6-1 6-0.
Earlier, top seed Novak Djokovic returned to winning ways after his U.S. Open default, beating Italian wildcard Salvatore Caruso 6-3 6-2.
Novak Djokovic said he was relieved to turn the page on his contentious U.S. Open exit as he began his claycourt season with a solid victory in his first match at the Italian Open on Wednesday.
The world number one, who was disqualified in New York after accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball during his fourth round match, defeated Italian wildcard Salvatore Caruso 6-3 6-2 to move into the third round in Rome.
Djokovic’s default in New York was met with heavy criticism by former players and fans on social media but the Serb said he was able to disconnect himself from the outside noise.
“I wouldn’t say I recovered happiness… because I’m happy regardless of tennis,” Djokovic told a news conference.
“I was actually looking forward to an official match as soon as possible after what happened in New York as I feel the sentiment on court needs to be positive.”
Djokovic’s frustration boiled over after dropping his serve against Pablo Carreno Busta in the opening set at Flushing Meadows but 10 days on in Rome he did not face a single break point in an imperious display against the unseeded Caruso.
“I didn’t feel any emotional or mental blockages or any drama playing a match today. I felt very comfortable,” Djokovic said.
“Caruso was a very good test for me. I was very pleased how I handled myself in important moments of the match.”
On arrival in Rome, an apologetic Djokovic vowed to be “the best version” of himself on and off the court and he kept his emotions in check against local hope Caruso.
Four-times Rome champion Djokovic, who received an opening-round bye, broke Caruso’s serve in the eighth game before serving out the opening set.
Caruso, who battled past American Tennys Sandgren in the opening round for his first ATP Masters 1000 match win, dropped his serve in a see-saw third game of the second set which lasted nearly 12 minutes.
With momentum firmly on his side, top seed Djokovic broke his opponent for a third time in the match before celebrating victory by blowing kisses into the empty stands at the Foro Italico.
Having recorded 51 victories in 60 matches, Djokovic is the second most successful player in the tournament’s history – just behind nine-time champion Rafael Nadal.
Djokovic has won 27 of his 28 matches this year and will resume his hunt for an 18th Grand Slam title at the French Open, which begins on Sept. 27.
“Regardless the change of surface I feel confident about the game,” he said. “Hopefully I can build that stride more and more as I move deeper in the tournament and prior to Roland Garros obviously.”
Djokovic will face either fellow Serb Filip Krajinovic or Italian Marco Cecchinato for a place in the last-16.