It had been 346 days since his last match on a hard court, but Rafael Nadal came through the latest test of his comeback from injury with an emphatic victory in the second round of the Indian Wells Masters on Saturday night.
The 26-year-old Spaniard, who had played only three clay-court tournaments since making his return last month following a lengthy absence with a recurrence of knee trouble, beat Ryan Harrison, the world No 73, 7-6, 6-2 to record his first win on a hard court since the Miami Masters last March.
After making an encouraging return on clay – he won two tournaments and reached the final of the other – Nadal had said he did not know how his left knee would react to playing on a less forgiving surface. While the win over Harrison, a 20-year-old American, produced a modest performance by Nadal's usual standards, the world No 5 was delighted to have got the victory under his belt.
"I am fine," Nadal said afterwards when asked how he was feeling. "My physical performance needs to improve. My movements need to improve. Matches like this help me, for sure. Today, more than any result, any victory is important because that gives me the chance to play another day. I need to compete. That's the only way to play well in a short period of time."
He added: "For my first tournament on hard [courts] and with the conditions, I don't expect a big result, but [it's good] just to be here, to practise with the other players, to compete like I did tonight and have another chance."
Nadal, who played with his left knee taped throughout the match, said he would not be taking "crazy risks" after seven months out, particularly as he had decided only in the last fortnight to play in Indian Wells. He made his comeback in South America last month, having last played at Wimbledon in July, and it had been thought he might continue playing on clay all the way through to the French Open in order to protect his knees.
If the seedings go to plan in Indian Wells Nadal will meet Roger Federer in the quarter-finals. On the basis of his opening performance, the Spaniard looks to have a good chance of reaching the last eight. He next faces Argentina's Leonardo Mayer, the winner to play Andreas Seppi or Ernests Gulbis.
Federer needed less than an hour to beat Denis Istomin 6-2, 6-3, but David Ferrer, who has replaced Nadal as world No 4 and Spanish No 1, lost 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 to South Africa's Kevin Anderson. Veteran Australian Lleyton Hewitt rolled back the years to beat John Isner, the world No 15, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4.
Victoria Azarenka, the Australian Open champion, recovered from a slow start to beat Daniela Hantuchova 6-4, 6-1, winning 11 of the last 12 games. Sloane Stephens, who reached the semi-finals in Melbourne after beating Serena Williams, was beaten 6-3, 6-4 by Urszula Radwanska, the world No 37 and younger sister of Agnieszka.