Federer out after Nadal struggles on

Problems mount for the world's top two players as poor run of form continues

You would hardly have guessed they were the world's two best players. Roger Federer lost his opening match in the Paris Masters here last night to Julien Benneteau, the world No 49, while Rafael Nadal had to save five match points before overcoming Nicolas Almagro, who had failed to win a set in four previous encounters with his fellow Spaniard.

Federer, who has won only one tournament since Wimbledon, lost 3-6, 7-6, 6-4. Nadal, who has not won a title for six months, took three and a quarter hours to beat Almagro 3-6, 7-6, 7-5.

The year's final Masters Series event usually produces an unlikely crop of results, with the top players exhausted by the long season and often nursing injuries. Tim Henman took advantage here six years ago, claiming the biggest tournament victory of his career by beating, among others, Federer, Andy Roddick, Gustavo Kuerten and Nikolay Davydenko.

What energy the leading men have left they usually want to keep in reserve for the season-ending finale, which will be staged in London this year. Federer and Nadal, who both pulled out during the Paris tournament with injuries last year, had long ago reserved their places in the elite eight-man field for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, which begin at the O2 Arena in 11 days' time. Federer, nevertheless, could hardly complain of exhaustion, having played only one tournament since the end of September.

The world No 1, who has never gone beyond the quarter-finals here, appeared in little trouble when he coasted through the first set, but Benneteau hung on and played an excellent tie-break, which he won 7-4. The 27-year-old Frenchman whipped up support from a boisterous home crowd, made an early break in the decider and, with tears in his eyes, sank to his knees after hitting an ace on his first match point.

Federer blamed a lack of practice here after playing in the final in Basel only three days previously, when he lost to Novak Djokovic. "It wasn't a bad performance," he said. "I definitely had chances, but I missed them."

Paris and Nadal always used to go together like croissants and coffee, but the Majorcan's world has not been the same since he suffered his first defeat in 32 matches at Roland Garros five months ago at the hands of Robin Soderling.

That defeat was the culmination of a clay-court season in which Nadal's creaky knees finally gave way. Suffering from tendinitis in both joints, he went on to miss Wimbledon and was out of the game for two and a half months before returning on the north American hard-court circuit. Another injury problem – a damaged stomach muscle – scuppered his chances at the US Open.

It may be down to the ditching of his sleeveless shirts, but Nadal is looking less formidable physically than he used to, although he insists that his weight has remained the same for the last four years. However, he appeared less assured in his ball-striking last night. Having surrendered the first set with a meek backhand into the net, he dropped his serve at 5-5 in the second and had to save five match points in the following game.

Suffering with a blister on his right foot, Nadal went on to win the subsequent tie-break 7-2. Almagro served for the match at 5-3 in the deciding set but had called for treatment on his right thigh. Nadal won the next four games in succession, at the end of which his opponent was hardly able to move. "I am very lucky to be in the next round," Nadal admitted afterwards. "I played badly today."

Andy Murray was last on court and it was one o'clock in the morning when his match against James Blake went into a deciding set. Djokovic gave a patchy performance in beating Juan Monaco 6-3, 7-5, while Juan Martin del Potro progressed at the expense of Marat Safin, who was beaten 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in the final match of his career.

After the match Safin was honoured in an on-court ceremony which featured several contemporaries, in said he would be going out last night to celebrate the end of his career but refused to go into any detail. "There are a lot of married people here," the former world No 1 said mysteriously.

28

Weeks since Rafael Nadal last won a singles title – the Rome Masters at the start of May.

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