Rafael Nadal made a triumphant return to hard-court tennis on Saturday, booking his third-round berth at Indian Wells with a straight-sets victory over American Ryan Harrison.
Seeded only fifth in a tournament he won in 2007 and 2009, Nadal was nevertheless squarely in the spotlight as he played his first hard-court match in 346 days.
After a few tense moments in the opening set, he came through with flying colours, beating 73rd-ranked American Harrison 7-6 (7/3), 6-2 in one hour and 33 minutes.
Nadal was sidelined for seven months recovering from a left-knee injury.
The former world No. 1 got his comeback off to a blazing start with three clay-court tournaments in Latin America, with one runner-up finish and two titles.
But he had not played a hard-court event since pulling out in Miami with left knee tendinitis last March, and he had not been sure he would be ready to test the knee on the punishing cement this month.
“Two weeks ago, I didn’t really know if I would be here playing,” he said.
After jumping to a 4-1 lead, Nadal found himself in a battle with Harrison, thanks in part to a few wayward forehands and ill-timed double faults that helped Harrison break back in the seventh game.
“With 4-1 and a few break points, I felt that I was playing OK,” Nadal said. “Nothing special, but OK.
“And after that I lost that game, the 4-2 with one double fault, three forehands outside of the stadium.
“After that, the set became very tricky.”
Nadal was clearly delighted after saving a break point to hold for a 6-5 lead, and he took charge of the tiebreaker early. He delivered another double fault on his first set point, but pocketed the set on the next.
He broke Harrison twice en route to a 4-1 lead in the second, and this time the American could not get back on terms.
Nadal closed the match out with a love game, sealing victory with an overhead winner.
“Any victory is important for me because that gives me the chance to play another day. That’s what I need, to play matches. I need to compete.“
– Rafael Nadal
“Any victory is important for me because that gives me the chance to play another day,” he said. “That’s what I need, to play matches. I need to compete.”
Nadal moved closer to a projected quarter-final match-up with old foe Roger Federer, the defending champion who cruised into the third round with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin.
Federer wrapped up the match in 57 minutes and did not face a break point.
The Swiss great, seeded second behind world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, is seeking a first tournament triumph of 2013 after being denied title repeats at Rotterdam and Dubai.
Federer said he would not be surprised to see Nadal across the net in the quarter-finals.
“Him not having played, for me, doesn’t make any difference, really. I still expect him to be really difficult and tough to beat here.”
Nadal’s fellow Spaniard David Ferrer echoed those thoughts after becoming the first major casualty of the tournament.
Fourth-seed Ferrer, who overtook Nadal in the world rankings, was beaten 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 by 37th-ranked South African Kevin Anderson.
The defeat followed Ferrer’s comprehensive 6-0, 6-2 loss to Nadal in the final at Acapulco a week earlier.
Perhaps with that still in mind, Ferrer said he expected Nadal to flourish on hard courts, just as he has on clay.
“He’s playing good,” Ferrer said. “He’s not playing with pain in his knee and that is a very good point.”
Other men advancing included France’s Gilles Simon, who saved three match points in a 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 victory over Paolo Lorenzi.
Australian warhorse Lleyton Hewitt beat last year’s runner-up John Isner 6-7 (6/8), 6-3, 6-4.
Women’s top seed and defending champion Victoria Azarenka survived a shaky start to make it safely into the third round with a 6-4, 6-1 victory over two-time former champion Daniela Hantuchova.
Azarenka, unbeaten in 2013 and winner of the Australian Open and the WTA event in Doha, fell behind 4-1 in the first set, but surrendered just one game in the next 12.