Serena fights back as Cilic cruises in China

Rafael Nadal's first competitive outing since returning from injury ended in doubles defeat at the China Open yesterday. Picture: Getty
Rafael Nadal's first competitive outing since returning from injury ended in doubles defeat at the China Open yesterday. Picture: Getty
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US OPEN champions Marin Cilic and Serena Williams kicked off their China Open campaigns with straight sets victories against battling underdogs, but Rafael Nadal suffered defeat in a rare doubles outing on his return from injury.

Williams, who won her 18th grand slam singles title in New York earlier this month, started sluggishly in Beijing and found herself 5-0 and 40-15 down to Spanish qualifier Silvia Soler Espinosa.

However, the world No 1 saved four set points in a brilliant fightback before taking the match 7-5, 6-2 to set up a second round clash with another qualifier, Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova.

It was the American’s first outing since retiring in the first set of her opening match against Alize Cornet at the Wuhan Open last week because of illness.

Also returning after an absence, albeit a longer one, was 14 times grand slam singles champion Nadal, who had been sidelined for over three months with a wrist injury.

The world No 2 teamed up with compatriot Pablo Andujar in the men’s doubles but they lost 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 to Czech Tomas Berdych and American John Isner in his first match since losing in the last 16 at Wimbledon.

The Spaniard is the second seed in the men’s singles draw and will face Richard Gasquet of France in first round action later in the week.

The 28-year-old has picked a tough tournament to mark his return, with eight of the world’s top 15 taking part in the ATP 500 outdoor hardcourt event with five spots still up for grabs at the season-ending World Tour 
Finals in November.

One of those hoping to join Nadal in London is Croatian Cilic, playing his first ATP tournament since winning a maiden grand slam at Flushing Meadows earlier this month, who brushed aside local wildcard Bai Yan 6-3, 6-4.

The Chinese world No 464 pushed the fourth seed for long periods but wasted his four break point opportunities on the Cilic serve.

By contrast, Cilic was able to capitalise on his opponent’s mistakes, with Bai’s forehand faltering as the match progressed, allowing the Croatian to secure a break in each set to advance to the second round.

“It’s important for me to keep focusing on the improvement of my game and try to recreate the game I was playing at the US Open,” Cilic said.

Serbia’s Viktor Troicki also advanced after beating Russia’s Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 6-4 with either the third seeded Berdych or Spain’s Feliciano Lopez awaiting him in the next round.

Troicki’s compatriot, former world No 1 Ana Ivanovic, had a far easier day by swatting aside Swiss teenager Belinda Bencic 6-2, 6-1 to advance to the second round of the women’s draw.

Ivanovic currently holds the eighth and final spot on the WTA’s Race to Singapore standings with four places still up for grabs for next month’s season-ending event.

In Tokyo, World No 5 David Ferrer’s poor start to the ATP’s Asian swing continued when he was dumped out of the Japan Open in the first round by fellow Spaniard Marcel Granollers.

Granollers, ranked 44th, fought back for a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win on the hard courts as Ferrer’s hopes of qualifying for the ATP World Tour Finals in November took another knock.

Ferrer also lost in the first round of the Shenzen Open last week to Troicki and is currently seventh in the ATP Race standings with the top eight qualifying for a place in London.

Ninth-placed Milos Raonic and 11th-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga were due to open their Japan Open accounts early this morning as they look to pick up precious points to put the heat on Ferrer.

It was a first win for Granollers over his compatriot in six attempts and his reward is a second-round match-up with American Steve Johnson, who served 12 aces in dispatching local qualifier Hiroki Moriya 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.

Home hopes in Japan rest with US Open finalist Kei Nishikori, who begins his campaign later in the week against Croatia’s Ivan Dodig.

Nishikori, who became the first Asian man to reach a grand slam singles final in New York earlier this month, won last week’s title in Malaysia to move up to a career best seventh in the world rankings.