Rafael Nadal had to dig deep before finally securing a hard-fought 3-6 7-6 (7-5) 6-4 win over Andy Roddick in the ATP World Tour Finals on Monday.
Nadal has spent much of a remarkably successful season sweeping opponents aside with consummate ease, but the world number one was pushed to the brink in his opening match of the prestigious end-of-year event at London’s O2 Arena.
The Spaniard was playing for the first time in five weeks after resting a shoulder injury and he initially looked a little rusty as Roddick took the first set.
But the 24-year-old eventually found the remorseless rhythm that has crushed so many top players and he battled back to ensure a winning start to his bid to land the Tour Finals crown for the first time.
“I was a little bit lucky tonight,” Nadal said.
“I started the match a little bit nervous after five weeks without playing and made too many mistakes at the beginning.”
“I was very close to losing but the positive thing is I finished the match playing much better and that’s good for my mentality.
“I can play with a little bit more calm in the next match and even if I lose I still have chances to be in the semis.”
Nadal crashed out in the group stages last year after losing all three matches and readily admits that lacklustre effort represented one of the lowest moments of his career.
In the next 12 months, Nadal has reasserted himself as the sport’s pre-eminent force by winning the French Open and Wimbledon titles, lifting a first US Open crown and returning to the top of the world rankings.
He had a golden opportunity when he earned two break points in the opening game but Roddick saved both and seemed energised by that escape act.
The American had beaten Nadal in their last meeting in Miami earlier this year and he applied pressure on the Spaniard’s serve with some searing returns that earned the first break.
When Nadal responded by unloading those ferocious top-spun forehands that so often crush opponents into submission, he found Roddick in obdurate mood.
Roddick saved two break points in the fifth game to build a 4-1 lead and Nadal was unable to make any further impact on his powerful serve as Roddick closed out the set.
Roddick had a chance to take complete control when he broke in the third game of the second set.
But Nadal found some rhythm to break straight back, and that proved to be the turning point.
The set went to a tie-break and both had chances to take the initiative before Nadal seized control with a stunning double-handed winner that whistled across court before catching the line.
Nadal didn’t waste the opportunity and sealed the set when Roddick miscued a forehand into the net.
“I came out of the gates aggressively and I think it caught him by surprise,” Roddick added.
“The difference was he found his range on his forehand in the second and third sets.
Federer turns on the style to rout Murray
Roger Federer was in sublime form as he moved closer to a place in the semi-finals of the ATP World Tour Finals with a 6-4 6-2 win over Andy Murray at London’s O2 Arena on Tuesday.
Federer had lost his last two meetings with Murray and has never been completely comfortable when facing the British No.1, but the Swiss star was at his imperious best as he romped to his second successive Group B victory in the prestigious end-of-year event.
Due to the complex nature of the tournament rules, Federer will seal his place in the last four later on Tuesday if David Ferrer defeats Robin Soderling or if Soderling beats Ferrer in three sets.
Either way, the world No.2 looks in the mood to end a frustrating year on a high by claiming his fifth Tour Finals title.
Murray, the fifth seed, must now defeat Ferrer in his final match on Thursday to have any chance of going through.
The Scot had beaten Federer in Masters finals in Toronto and Shanghai this year and didn’t drop a set on either occasion as he improved his career record against the Swiss to an impressive 8-5.
Yet for all Murray’s success against Federer, he has fared less well when the stakes have been highest.
Murray’s 2010 campaign was derailed for months by the emotional aftermath of Federer’s crushing victory in the Australian Open final in January, while the Swiss also defeated him in the US Open final in 2008.
Federer has struggled by his own high standards over the last 12 months and surrendered his place on top of the rankings to Rafael Nadal after failing to retain the French Open and Wimbledon titles.
But the six-time Wimbledon champion has always thrived in London and he made a lightning start that left Murray rocked.
Federer was hitting with purpose and aggression and, although he wasted a break point in the opening game, he broke in the next service game with a blistering return that almost ripped through Murray such was the venom behind it.
Murray regrouped and was able to hold serve comfortably after that but the damage had already been done.
With Federer’s own serve in a smooth groove, there only one brief glimmer of hope for Murray when he took a 30-0 lead as the Swiss served for the set.