Rafael Nadal emerged a 6-4, 6-3 winner over Jarkko Nieminen with no obvious discomfort to his troublesome left knee as the Spaniard began his quest for a record eighth title at the Monte Carlo Masters.
Nadal, now 40-1 at the venue where he only lost a match in 2003, won his 38th straight match in the principality as he overcame stubborn resistance from the 48th-ranked Finn, who claimed the Sydney title in January.
Nadal, who required two weeks of knee treatment after failing to play his Miami semi-final match because of knee pain last month, has not lifted a trophy since the French Open 10 months ago.
“I played a really normal match, nothing special — nothing very bad, but nothing very good,” said Nadal, who was to face Kazakh qualifier Mikhail Kukushkin yesterday. “It was the first match on clay after a long time, and the first match after 15 days without touching a racket.”
“The important thing was that I won in straight sets. Tomorrow, I have another chance to keep improving, and that’s what I’m going to try,” Nadal said. “You need days to see how all the sensations improve — the knees, the tennis, everything. When you stop for 15 days without practice, your body loses a little bit of the performance.”
The second seed joined world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in moving through a clay-season opener in straight sets on a cloudy day on the Mediterranean coast.
Djokovic began with a 6-1, 6-4, victory over Andreas Seppi, taking a 5-0 lead over the 44th-ranked Italian and breaking for an early lead in the second set on the way to his seventh win in their series of encounters.
“I served really well when I needed to,” Djokovic said. “That’s encouraging for the clay, it’s good to have a couple of free points there.”
“I was really focused first set and played it well against a tough, quality opponent who plays good on clay. For the first official match since Roland Garros last year, it was satisfying,” he said.
The top seed will next play 16th-seeded Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov, who put out new Monte Carlo resident Bernard Tomic of Australia 6-2, 5-7, 6-1.
“He’s a very talented player, comes up with some shots that are not really typical,” Djokovic said of Dolgopolov. “He changes the pace and is very dangerous on clay. I need to be aware and disciplined on the court. I need to try not to be frustrated with the rhythm that he comes up with.”
There was a shock for fifth seed David Ferrer as the Spaniard went down to Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil 6-3, 6-2.
No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych -dismissed Croatian Marin Cilic 7-6 (7/3), 6-1, with Serb No. 7 Janko Tipsarevic advancing over Spain’s Albert Montanes 6-2, 6-3.
No. 8 seed Nicolas Almagro beat Italian Potito Starace 7-6 (7/3), 6-1, while No. 9 seed Frenchman Gilles Simon won a match that began at 10:30am, beating Frederico Gil of Portugal 6-3, 6-0.
Julien Benneteau registered another French win as he put out last year’s semi-finalist and 15th seed Jurgen Melzer of Austria 6-4, 6-3. Benneteau tackles British third seed Andy Murray in the next round.
Kukushkin booked his date with Nadal by beating Italy’s Filippo Volandri 7-6 (10/8), 2-6, 6-2 and Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka beat Pablo Andujar, the champion in Casablanca, Morocco, on Sunday, 7-5, 6-3.