CHARLEROI, BELGIUM: Rafael Nadal marked his return to competitive tennis with a straight sets success over Ruben Bemelmans in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group first round tie, to hand Spain a 2-0 lead at the end of day one. Earlier, Fernando Verdasco silenced the locals with victory over Xavier Malisse in three sets.
For Nadal, who was playing for the first time since injuring his leg in the Australian Open quarterfinals, the win over Bemelmans extended his winning streak in Davis Cup singles to 15 matches. His only loss came on his debut in 2004, when he was beaten by Jiri Novak.
He triumphed 62 64 62 but denied it was straight-forward: “It’s never easy. I started playing really well. After the first set, at a break, my legs stopped a little bit, but I finished the match playing better again.”
Nadal and Bemelmans had met on one previous occasion, at the Thailand Open last year, with the world No. 1 winning 61 64. Nadal, though, had the utmost respect for his promising opponent: “He has good potential and is a dangerous player. If he keeps improving and makes fewer mistakes, then I think he has a good chance of moving up the rankings.”
Bemelmans won a number of baseline battles, but Nadal’s quality proved far too good. Back after a spell on the sidelines, Nadal admits he is still not 100 per cent, but getting fitter, sharper and stronger as each day passes.
In the day’s opening rubber, Fernando Verdasco comfortably stepped in for his injured compatriot David Ferrer, and defeated Xavier Malisse in straight sets 64 63 61 in just under two hours.
Verdasco was told as early as Thursday afternoon to prepare to replace Ferrer. He knew for sure on Thursday evening, and was mentally ready. This was not the case for Malisse, who admitted that the change of opponent came as a surprise.
“I first heard about it (change of opponent) when I arrived at the venue, at about 11:30 and it does change your mind a little bit,” he said.
“All week you’re thinking of playing one guy, and go to bed mentally preparing for that opponent, so to hear three hours before play that you’re facing someone different does mess things about, but that’s Davis Cup.”
Malisse was a game to the good in the opening set, and then had three break points on the Verdasco serve in game two. That chance slipped by, and the Spanish world No. 9 thereafter gave him little joy.
The 27-year-old Verdasco broke the Malisse serve in game three, and although the Belgian won three of his four successful service games to love, the single break was enough for Verdasco to take the first set 64.
Malisse did break the Verdasco serve in the second set, but the world No. 9 enjoyed three breaks, including one in game nine to take the set 63.
Meeting for the first time, Verdasco’s ferocious forehand left Malisse standing and staring at times, unable to match the pace and power of his opponent.
An early break for Verdasco in set three had Malisse back on his heels, and with a mountain to climb. A rare highlight for Belgian fans came in game six, an overhead smash from their No. 1, acrobatically put away as he raced to the net. As it happened, Verdasco went on to break Malisse in that game, for a 51 lead. Moments later, Verdasco held serve to triumph in a little under two hours.
“I think the beginning of the match was very hard,” said the Spaniard. “He had chances with my first service game and I really had to fight hard. After that, I started to slowly feel more comfortable on the court and found the style of game I needed to win the match.”
The victorious Verdasco is now set to team-up with Feliciano Lopez on Saturday, when they will face Malisse and Olivier Rochus.
Belgium knew the task was going to be tough. Their captain, Reginald Willems, was in awe at the power and precision of Nadal and is under no illusions as to the mammoth mountain they must now try to climb. Spain are firmly in the driving seat and on course to repeat the 5-0 whitewash inflicted upon Belgium the last time the teams met, in 2003.
Rafael Nadal (ESP) - 04/03/2011
Ruben Bemelmans (BEL) - 04/03/2011
Fernando Verdasco (ESP) - 04/03/2011
Xavier Malisse (BEL) - 04/03/2011
Captain Albert Costa (ESP) - 04/03/2011
Captain Reginald Willems (BEL) - 04/03/2011