Nadal and Federer progress

Rafael Nadal made a successful debut in Olympic singles today, overcoming numerous missed chances by sweeping the final four games to beat Potito Starace of Italy 6-2, 3-6, 6-2.

Top-seeded Roger Federer had an easier time. He began a bid for his first Olympic medal by beating Dmitry Tursunov 6-4, 6-2.

Nadal played doubles but not singles at the Athens Olympics in 2004. He's playing both at Beijing, staying in the athletes' village and hoping to sustain a summer surge that has assured him of the No. 1 ranking next week.

"I am very happy to be here," Nadal said. "Just trying to enjoy 100 per cent the experience, and later try my best on court."

No. 4-seeded Serena Williams won all four games when her match resumed after an overnight wait to complete a rain-interrupted victory over Olga Govortsova of Belarus, 6-3, 6-1.

Like Nadal, Williams was playing her first singles match at the Olympics. She won a gold medal in doubles in 2000 with her sister Venus.

"It's a great thing going out there playing for your country," she said.

Williams said she skipped Beijing's opening ceremonies because she goes to bed early, and she decided against staying in the athletes' village because she likes privacy. Last week she visited the village, where she was a popular subject for those seeking photos and autographs.

"I was bombarded with lots of people," she said. "It was a lot. I can't count. But it was cool, I guess."

In men's play, Nicolas Massu of Chile opened his bid to repeat as Olympic champion by beating Steve Darcis of Belgium 6-4, 7-5. Massu won gold at Athens in both singles and doubles.

Nadal played the 10:30 a.m. match on center court, and at times it appeared he needed a wakeup call. He struggled on the backhand side, and shook his head or rolled his eyes when usually reliable strokes misfired. Because of Beijing's oppressive humidity, Nadal said, he was changing his shirt every 10 minutes.

A highlight-reel rally got him going in the third set. Nadal sprinted into the alley near the net in pursuit of a ball and scooped a forehand winner cross-court as he braked to avoid running into the post, then fell to his back. He rose and threw a jubilant fist, leaving behind a wet patch on the court.

After failing to convert seven consecutive break-point chances in the second and third sets, he broke for a 4-2 lead in the final set. He erased a 15-40 deficit on his serve in the next game, then broke again for the victory.

"I had a lot of opportunities. I didn't convert, so that was tough," Nadal said. "But I was winning the serves without problems. He had more problems than me when he was serving, so that gave me confidence."

Seeded second, Nadal is on a roll after beating Federer in the finals at the French Open and Wimbledon. The latter result compounded Federer's yearlong slump, and regardless of the outcome at Beijing, he'll be supplanted atop the rankings by Nadal next week.

Federer has won only two tournaments in 2008, and an Olympic gold medal would help him salvage the year after he was shut out of the medal chase at Sydney in 2000 and at Athens in 2004.