When Rafael Nadal last won a competitive match on grass there was rain in the air and it was so dark that the scoreboard lights were glowing brightly through the gloom of a dull July evening. Nearly two years after his remarkable triumph over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final, Nadal was back on grass here yesterday playing his opening match in the Aegon Championships.
The weather was similarly iffy as the Spaniard began his quest to regain the title he won at Queen's Club en route to his Wimbledon triumph, but that was just about where the similarities with the 2008 final at the All England Club ended. Instead of facing the greatest player of all time, Nadal met an opponent who in 15 years as a professional has never reached a final on the main tour. Marcos Daniel, a 31-year-old Brazilian ranked No 112 in the world, was duly beaten 6-2, 6-2 in just 50 minutes.
It was just the sort of gentle reintroduction to grass that Nadal needed after two years without a competitive match on the surface – he missed the whole of last summer's grass-court season because of knee trouble – and two days of practice here in which he described his tennis as "terrible".
The world No 1 arrived in London on Monday, 24 hours after his triumph in the French Open, and spent 15 minutes practising in the pouring rain that evening. The following day's practice session was not much better. "I practised very badly," he said. "During the morning I did better, but it was still bad."
The very first point emphasised the difference between clay and grass. Nadal's sliced cross-court backhand would have sat up nicely for his opponent on the red dirt of Paris but on the green grass of London it skidded low past Daniel's racket for a winner.
Nadal sped into a 3-0 lead and broke serve for a second time when Daniel served at 2-5. On set point Nadal hit a forehand approach down the line, attacked the net and hit a half-volley cross-court winner. Grass-court tactics were quickly becoming more familiar.
The second set, which was interrupted briefly by rain, followed a similar pattern, Nadal breaking Daniel again at 2-5 with two smart cross-court winners to earn a third-round encounter with Denis Istomin, of Uzbekistan. Following his perfect clay-court season it was Nadal's 23rd victory in succession.
The Spaniard said he was feeling no pain in his knees and felt more confident than he had at the start of previous grass-court seasons given the past success he has had on the surface. "It makes me feel a bit better mentally when I come back here, but at the same time I need the time because I have to adapt," he said.
"The way that you have to compete [on grass] is completely different, and the way that you have to play the points is different. The movements are completely different, and you have to be very focused all the time. Sure, on clay you have to be very focused all the time, too, but you have time. You can lose a game on clay and come back. Here, if you lose your serve, it's going to be very difficult to come back. That's a big difference."
Novak Djokovic, the No 2 seed behind Nadal, got off to a similarly good start, beating Italy's Paolo Lorenzi 6-3, 6-3. Andy Murray, the No 3 seed, plays Mardy Fish this afternoon and will be hoping for a better outcome than his doubles against the American yesterday. Murray and his brother, Jamie, were beaten 6-3, 6-3 by Fish and Mark Knowles.
Rain disrupted play again at the Aegon Classic at Edgbaston, where current and former British No 1s enjoyed contrasting fortunes. Elena Baltacha retired after losing the first set 6-1 to Kaia Kanepi because she felt unwell, but Anne Keothavong beat France's Pauline Parmentier 4-6, 7-5, 7-5. Both Britons have been given wild cards into next week's Aegon International at Eastbourne.