It took him 12 months to win a set let alone a match at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals but Rafael Nadal finally got off the mark here last night. The world No 1, who lost all three of his matches when the end-of-season championships came to London for the first time last year, recovered from a slow start to beat Andy Roddick 3-6, 7-6, 6-4 in his opening round-robin contest.
Nadal's fears that he would struggle on the low-bouncing court were realised as Roddick hurried his opponent into an early flow of errors, but the 24-year-old Spaniard worked his way back to secure victory after more than two and a half hours.
There are few countries where a neutral crowd would not be overwhelmingly behind Nadal, but the British public have a mutual affection with Roddick, thanks largely to his exploits at Wimbledon. That bond grew stronger with the American's heroic performance in last year's final at the All England Club and last night's 17,500-capacity crowd were divided in their loyalties.
It has been a moderate year for Roddick, though he qualified for these championships for the eighth time in a row. Nadal, in contrast, has had a wonderful season, winning three Grand slam titles, but the Spaniard has gone off the boil recently and is rarely at his best indoors.
Nadal was wearing a new burgundy-coloured shirt but for a set and a half his tennis was more like last year's vin ordinaire than the vintage he has been serving up for most of this season. The Wimbledon champion hit two double faults in dropping his serve in the second game, while Roddick quickly found his rhythm, smashing three successive 140mph-plus aces to take a 3-0 lead.
The world No 8 served out for the first set and took a 2-0 lead in the second before Nadal levelled at 2-2. The Spaniard, growing in confidence, won the tie-break 7-5 and made the decisive break of serve in the fifth game of the decider.
Kylie Minogue watched the evening session, while the afternoon's major celebrity was Diego Maradona, attending for the second day in a row. The former World Cup winner sat with Novak Djokovic's entourage as the Serb kicked off his campaign with an impressive 6-3, 6-3 victory over Tomas Berdych.
Djokovic, who admitted he felt nervous when Maradona arrived on the court, learnt two years ago that he was a fan. They exchanged gifts – Maradona sent him a signed shirt while Djokovic gave him a racket – but had not met until this week.
"To have him as a supporter is an incredible honour," Djokovic said. "It was a big pleasure to meet him. We spoke in Italian. He played for many years in Italy, so he speaks very well. We spoke about him coming to practice tomorrow and playing a bit of tennis and football. He's going to stay throughout the whole tournament. Hopefully he can be my lucky charm."
Ever the joker, Djokovic said that Maradona was doing some tennis coaching with him. "We're working on some specifics, like how to play high balls with the hand," he said.