Safin and Nadal tested on return

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The Independent Online

There were so many comebacks here yesterday that you half expected Pete Sampras on centre court to complete the evening's entertainment. On a day when the seven-times Wimbledon champion announced a return of sorts ­ he will play in the World Team Tennis league in America this summer as well as an exhibition match in Houston next month ­ Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Marat Safin all ended breaks from the game by winning first-round matches in the Dubai Duty Free Open.

While the glitz of WTT, with its single-set first-to-five-games format, will give Sampras the gentlest of reminders of the stage he once graced, there was no doubting the heat of competition here in Dubai. The top two seeds, Federer and Nadal, are also ranked No 1 and No 2 in the world, while the third, Nikolai Davydenko, the world No 5, fell victim to a resurgent Safin.

Federer, who beat his fellow Swiss, Stanislas Wawrinka, 7-6, 6-3, took a month off after his Australian Open victory, but Safin and Nadal have had little choice over their absences. Safin had not played since August after a knee operation, while Nadal has played in only one tournament since suffering a foot injury in October. Both enjoyed creditable wins after going a set down, Safin beating Davydenko 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 and Nadal overcoming Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-7, 6-1, 6-2.

Leaden-footed, indecisive and mistiming his shots, Safin looked badly out of touch in the first set, but gradually got into his stride. By the end Davydenko was struggling to cope with the weight of his compatriot's shots, punched low and hard over the net. Taking a 3-0 lead, Safin broke again to take the second set and repeated the pattern in the third to secure the match, hitting a total of 10 aces.

Safin was unable to run for four months following an operation on his knee and watched the Australian Open, which he had won 12 months earlier, on a television in a gym. He picked up a racket again a month ago and even then he could play for no more than an hour.

The Russian said: "When I saw the draw yesterday I didn't think I'd even win a set. I just thought I'd come out, win a few games and make sure I was moving OK again. The first set was tough. Everything seemed to be happening very fast. I just couldn't see the ball... It was difficult to know what to do at times, when to go to the net, when to stay back, when to try to put pressure on my opponent."

Nadal played tentatively in his first set but looked increasingly like the player who so dominated last year's clay-court season as he took the game to Mathieu, the French world No 34. The match lasted more than two and a half hours and the Spaniard was happy to learn that he would have a walkover into the quarter-finals after Morocco's Younes El Aynaoui withdrew for personal reasons.

"I played more aggressively and with more intensity after the first set, " Nadal said. "I think I played well. It was my best match since I started my comeback."

Federer showed only glimpses of his usual brilliance against his occasional practice partner. There were no breaks of serve in the first set, but Wawrinka was fighting an uphill battle as soon as Federer broke on the first point of the tie-break, which he won 7-3. The second set featured seven breaks of serve in the first eight games.

Dominik Hrbaty, the No 6 seed, went out to Mikhail Youzhny, while the No 7 seed Radek Stepanek beat John van Lottum to earn a second-round match tonight against Tim Henman.

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