Rafael Nadal made his long-awaited return to hardcourts yesterday at Indian Wells, and for the most part the 2-time tournament champion looked up to par in his first hardcourt match in nearly a year. Nadal fired out of the blocks quickly going up 4-1 on Ryan Harrison, then stumbled a bit after a flurry of errors before securing 7-6, 6-2 win.
Nadal admitted after that he wasn’t even sure if he would be playing Indian Wells. And he also said he needs to get much better.
“I am satisfied to be in the next round. That’s the most important thing,” said Nadal. “Two weeks ago, I didn’t really know if I would be here playing. I am happy to be here. I am happy to be in the third round. It was a good victory for me today against a good opponent.
“My physical performance needs to improve. My movement needs to improve. Matches like this help me. Any victory is important for me because that gives me the chance to play another day. That’s what I need, to play matches. I need to compete.”
Rafa’s draw also cleared out. While Roger Federer remains a quarterfinal obstacle, next for Nadal is Leonardo Mayer, who upended Mikhail Youzhny and then possibly Ernests Gulbis who stayed hot winning his 12th straight match (including qualifying) by blasting a beleaguered Janko Tipsarevic 6-2, 6-0.
The four-time champ Federer looked sharp as he opened his title defense dominating Denis Istomin 6-2, 6-3.
“It felt good from the start and was able to maintain that level of play,” said Federer. “I never thought he got into the match at all. That gives you obviously even more confidence.”
Like Nadal, Federer also got a bit of a break with the draw. Instead of a Juliean Benneteau, who beat Roger last month, he’ll face Ivan Dodig who just upset the Frenchman.
Elsewhere, the tough tournament for the Americans continued. 2012 finalist John Isner was sent packing in three sets by former champion Lleyton Hewitt 6-7, 6-3, 6-4. Isner’s loss will send him out of the Top 20 and potentially leave the U.S. men shut out of the Top 20 next Monday for the first time in rankings history.
“It’s a tough match. I knew it was going to be. Lleyton is such a good competitor,” said Isner. “I felt like I could have played a little bit better. I needed to play very well to win today, and I don’t feel like I necessarily did that. But I think Lleyton had a lot to do with it. It’s very disappointing.
“But I believe things will get better. As long as I continue to believe that, then I just hope that things will get better, and I do believe that they will. Just gotta keep plugging away.”
Isner’s younger countryman fared no better. The much ballyhooed trio of Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Taylor Townsend combined to go 0-6 in sets on Saturday (0-8 if Harrison is included).
Since her shock win over Serena Williams at the Australian Open, Stephens has crumbled under the expectations losing four of her last five matches after falling apart to Urszula Radwanska last night. Townsend was dominated by former champ Ana Ivanovic while Keys was outshined by US Open champion Sam Stosur.
Fourth-seeded David Ferrer was also stunned by 6-foot-8 Kevin Anderson. The Spaniard has lost five of his last six matches in the desert.
Top seed and defending champion Victoria Azarenka advanced as did Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon and Jersy Janowicz who outslugged David Nalbandian in three sets.
Headlining today are Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Maria Sharapova and a pair of American veterans James Blake and Mardy Fish. Blake battle Jo-Wilfried Tsonga tonight while Fish, playing in his first match since the US Open, faces countryman Bobby Reynolds.
“Couldn’t ask for a better start of the season,” Djokovic said Friday. “Winning Australia and Dubai, playing on hard courts, which is my most successful and most preferable surface that suits my game the best. So I won this tournament in the past, and I like spending time here and in Miami these few weeks. Hopefully I can maintain the high level of performance and move into these weeks with a great deal of confidence.”
STADIUM 1 start 11:00 am
 M Fish (USA) vs [Q] B Reynolds (USA) – ATP
 A Murray (GBR) vs E Donskoy (RUS) – ATP
Not Before 2:30 PM
 C Suarez Navarro (ESP) vs  M Sharapova (RUS) – WTA
 N Djokovic (SRB) vs F Fognini (ITA) – ATP
Not Before 7:00 PM
[WC] J Blake (USA) vs  J Tsonga (FRA) – ATP
Not Before 8:30 PM
S Kuznetsova (RUS) vs  M Bartoli (FRA) – WTA
STADIUM 2 start 11:00 am
 S Errani (ITA) vs J Larsson (SWE) – WTA
 M Cilic (CRO) vs A Ramos (ESP) – ATP
N Davydenko (RUS) vs  J Del Potro (ARG) – ATP
Not Before 5:00 PM
 S Cirstea (ROU) vs  A Radwanska (POL) – WTA
 S Querrey (USA) vs [Q] I Karlovic (CRO) – ATP
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