RAFAEL Nadal will start his Wimbledon challenge this afternoon determined to erase the memory of his shock second-round defeat last year to a player ranked 100 in the world.
The French Open champion has been handed the toughest of draws by the All England Club and will, in all likelihood, have to beat Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic if he is to win his third Wimbledon title.
But he was in upbeat mood as he beat Japan’s Kei Nishikori 7-6 (7/3), 7-6 (7/4) in the exhibition BNP Paribas Tennis Classic at London’s Hurlingham Club.
It was the first time Nadal had planted his feet on a grass court in competitive action since losing to virtual unknown Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon last year.
Nadal, who was also playing his first match since lifting the French Open title on the red clay at Roland Garros for a record eighth time 12 days ago, said: “It is always a pleasure to play on grass. I always love it. I’m happy to be back playing here. It’s a very nice atmosphere.”
There were a few flakes of rust as Nadal threw in the odd double fault, but when he found a penetrating length on his groundstrokes his power was too much for Nishikori, who is at a career-high of 11 in the ATP world rankings.
Nadal’s task now is to prove the All England Club were wrong to hand him a number five seeding, in line with his world ranking which, arguably, is artificial because of the seven months he was out of the game recovering from his injured left knee.
The decision has been labelled a “100 per cent joke” by Andy Murray’s former coach Brad Gilbert, and the Spaniard is bound to be all the more determined when he faces Belgium’s Steve Darcis in today’s first round.
Nishikori gave Nadal his seal of approval when he said: “He’s playing very well. And he’s just won the French Open so I was very happy to play him.”
At the AEGON International at Eastbourne on Saturday, the men’s title went to Feliciano Lopez, who gained considerable confidence for his first-round match at Wimbledon tomorrow by beating second seed Gilles Simon 7-6 (7/2), 6-7 (5/7), 6-0. By a quirk of fate, the two men will play again at the All England Club after being paired together in Friday’s draw.
Unusually for a Spaniard, Lopez is perfectly at home on grass and is a three-times quarter-finalist at Wimbledon. Conditions were very tricky, with a swirling wind making life difficult for both players, but in the end it was Lopez who coped best, running away with the third set.
The victory gave the 31-year-old his third title on the ATP World Tour and his first for more than three years.
Meanwhile, at ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, Nicolas Mahut won his first-ever ATP World Tour singles title at the age of 31 as he lifted the trophy on Saturday. The Frenchman is ranked at 240 after a run of poor form and injury, and needed to come through qualifying to reach the main draw of the Topshelf Open.
Mahut is a specialist on grass and he showed his prowess on the surface in his 6-3, 6-4 victory over second seed Stanislas Wawrinka. He will head into his first-round match at Wimbledon against Czech Jan Hajek in high spirits.
Mahut, who was given a wild card for SW19, said: “It’s amazing. I cannot believe I won today.
“I didn’t know if I was going to play again when I had some bad times with my knee. All my team helped me a lot. We worked hard and here I am with the trophy. It’s a good story.”