The tennis world was overjoyed to see Rafael Nadal return to action after more than six months out and fans couldn’t get enough of the Spaniard’s new routine during the coronavirus restrictions.
In his first match in over six months, Nadal swept aside fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta on Wednesday to reach the third round of the Italian Open.
The nine-time Rome winner came through 6-1, 6-1 against 18th-ranked Carreno Busta, a recent semi-finalist at the US Open.
"It was a perfect start for me. It was solid, good shots on the forehand and backhand. I didn't expect to play that well," Nadal said.
"Maybe Pablo was a little bit tired from a great tournament there in New York, but thinking about myself, I played a very solid match and very serious and doing a lot of things very well. So very happy."
After such a long break many fans were not just worried about Nadal’s game, but how he would adapt his habits surrounding coronavirus restrictions.
Nadal is known for his idiosyncrasies on court, which has delighted and baffled tennis fans for years.
But under new restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, players are forbidden to hand ball girls and boys their towels.
This has produced some unusual behaviour on court as players get use to the new restrictions, with Novak Djokovic accidentally attempting to hand his towel to a ball girl during the Southern & Western Open, before hesitating and dropping it. Djokovic and the ball girl shared a laugh over the funny moment.
But in classic Nadal style, he came up with a quirky solution.
Reporters and fans on social media noticed the Spaniard had brought a number of towels on court and placed them in either corner every service game.
Fans also had a laugh at the sight of Nadal running around and picking up the towels following his victory.
Rafa Nadal walking around the court gathering his towels, what a gem 😄❤️ #IBI20— Marko (@Marko_w_Polo) September 16, 2020
😂😂😂 Rafa has an extra job collecting towels. But OMG How did he practice keeping up his game? 🎾👏🎾👏— Nadal King Of Courts 🇩🇰 (@EBollerup) September 16, 2020
Rafa picking upall his towels and giving them to Charly (hotel's towels, it seems) pic.twitter.com/i04NSjfXa2— Genny SS (@genny_ss) September 16, 2020
Rafa is cleaning up his area, gathering towels, dumping trash, untied shoes and then put on mask, and signed lens. Good lad. We know he’s messy at home. His uncle would’ve had his ass if he was untidy on a court.— Mayor of Cicakistan🎾🔥🧫🌡🧬🧪 (@Rafalution19) September 16, 2020
Great game and in usual fashion Rafa picked up where he left off, and change like towels didn’t bother him at all.— Anna B (@Anna_Beee) September 16, 2020
me watching rafa pick up all his towels himself: someone help him 😭😭— c. 🦋🌸 (@fedalogie) September 16, 2020
Congratulations @RafaelNadal!! Such a great pleasure watching yoh play so well after being away for so many months 😊— 🌺 (@kfarday) September 16, 2020
Nadal’s habits have become so synonymous with his game that there were some fans debating prior to the match how Nadal would manage this situation, but Nadal always comes up with a solution.
Anxiously awaiting Rafa's towel management solutions— Nadal News (@nadalnews) September 16, 2020
@ATPTennisRadio to continue on this fascinating towel chat, I believe Nadal should just adjust to the new rules just like we are all trying in our everyday life😜Thank you for all your hard work😊— Mariana E. Manessi (@_manessi) September 16, 2020
Rafa Nadal’s return to tennis
The World No.2 has not played since winning in Acapulco at the end of February, opting to skip the US hard court tour because of coronavirus concerns.
The 34-year-old will next play either Canadian Milos Raonic or Serb Dusan Lajovic for a place in the quarter-finals.
Nadal, a 12-time French Open winner, is the second seed behind world number one Novak Djokovic in the tune-up for the final Grand Slam of the season at Roland Garros on September 27.
But he does not believe the brutal switch from hard to clay surface will be a disadvantage for his rivals at the French Open.
"If Roland Garros is this week, maybe yes, (but) Roland Garros is two weeks away so I don't think so."
"Of course I have to improve things. But the things that I have to improve, the only way to improve is to keep practicing with the right attitude and intensity and to spend hours on the competition matches.
"And today have been a positive start for me.
"This year, of course situation is different, but I gonna keep trying my best," added the Spaniard who did not pick up a racquet during lockdown.
"Then I started to practice on hard for a while. And then I switch to clay.
"But I really do not remember when, honestly, but quite a lot. But I have been practicing on and off not every single day since the beginning.”
Nadal, who has a 62-6 record in Rome, is attempting to capture a record 36th ATP Masters 1000 title, which would break a tie with four-time former Rome champion Djokovic.