TENNIS

Nadal back in swing with victory

World number five makes winning return to singles action at the Chile Open

Rafael Nadal serves during his comeback match against Federico Delbonis Wednesday / E. FERNÁNDEZ (REUTERS)

Rafael Nadal made his long-awaited comeback in a singles match on Wednesday in Viña del Mar and more than the result, the world number five, who has been sidelined since Wimbledon last July, was happy with the way his knee responded to a competitive match.

“For now the most important thing is to spend as much time as possible on court. This victory allows me to play at least two more matches, singles and doubles. To practice is one thing but to play is totally different. In a real match you can’t control your body as you do in training,” said the French Open champion after a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Federico Delbonis.

There was a touch of rust in Nadal’s play as he dropped the first two games but the Spaniard swiftly found his range and movement to rattle off 10 of the next 11 before his Argentinean opponent recovered to claim a couple of games in a one-sided, 38-minute second set.

Nadal was scheduled to play again on Thursday in the doubles competition with partner Juan Mónaco, the world number 12 who was surprisingly dumped out of the singles draw by Guillaume Rufin. The unseeded but potent pairing was up against Rufin and Filippo Volandri.

In the singles Nadal awaits the winner of an all-Spain clash between Albert Montañés and Daniel Gimeno-Traver in Friday’s quarterfinals.

Of his long return to fitness and prospects for the year, Nadal was both optimistic and belligerent. “I want to get back to the player I was before and, genuinely, I believe I can do it,” he said. “If my knee is okay, what reason is there for me not to do it? I’ve been in the top two for eight years. I dare to say that in eight months I haven’t forgotten how to play tennis. It’s true I won’t be the favorite in Paris, but I don’t need to be the favorite to win it.”

Nadal also challenged the concept that a new Grand Slam final rivalry to replace his lengthy duel with Roger Federer was taking shape between Andy Murray and world number one Novak Djokovic. “I’m only a year older than them. I don’t think it’s the time to bury me right now. Eight months ago I was in a good position to be world number one. We forget very quickly. Now I have to try to get myself into the Djokovic-Murray era.”

Nadal attributed the Serbian’s excellent form to his physical durability: “He can do what he wants and he never gets injured. Give me two years without injury, and...”

Responding to comments made by Belgian former player Christophe Rochus earlier this month — in which he essentially accused Nadal and Robin Söderling of using their layoffs to cover for doping — the Mallorcan replied: “They’ve tested me nine times while I was sidelined; not bad for someone who wasn’t playing.”

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