On a day when a stiff breeze sent waves crashing into the rocks just beneath the Monte Carlo Country Club's hillside perch above the Mediterranean, the opening tournament of the European clay-court season was always likely to claim a significant victim or two. A leading Spaniard who is a serial winner on clay lost his opening match here for the first time since his debut in 2003, but to the relief of Rafael Nadal's millions of fans around the world it was not the world No2 who was licking his wounds.
While David Ferrer had what he called "a bad day", going down 6-3, 6-2 to the Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci, Nadal safely negotiated his opening match at the Monte Carlo Masters, beating Finland's Jarkko Nieminen 6-4, 6-3.
Nadal described the win as "nothing special", but there was a sense of relief in his voice. He came here following a 15-day break after suffering another knee injury and has been back on the practice court for less than a week.
The 25-year-old admitted that he was returning to competition much earlier than he would have liked - he said earlier this week that he was "a little bit scared" – but wanted to be ready for the start of his favourite two months of the year, finishing with the French Open.
Nadal is a creature of habit and after beginning his clay-court season with victory here for the last seven years it was important to him to play at Monte Carlo. There were times against Nieminen when he looked rusty, but for a first match on clay against an experienced opponent it was a satisfying result. He said afterwards that he was still aware of the tendon problem in his left knee, but that it had not restricted him.
The victory took Nadal's winning run on these courts to 38 matches. Since Nadal beat Novak Djokovic in the 2009 final, only one player, Andy Murray, has taken a set off him in 11 matches.
Djokovic also began with a straight-sets win, beating Italy's Andreas Seppi 6-1, 6-4. The world No1 will be aiming to end the clay-court season with victory at Roland Garros, which would make him the first man to hold all four Grand Slam titles since Rod Laver in 1969, and was encouraged by his start.
"For the first official match [on clay] since Roland Garros last year it was satisfying," he said. "It takes at least a week to adjust to the movement. You have to be a little bit more patient in your rallies. But the way I played today, I'm happy."
Murray's third-round opponent today will be the 30-year-old Frenchman, Julien Benneteau. The world No31 has lost both his previous encounters with the Scot but has had good results on clay. "He's very experienced and understands how to play well on this court," Murray said.
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