Nadal fights on
Rafael Nadal’s dazzling recovery skills came to the fore once again as he saved two match-points before defeating Lucas Pouille 4-6 7-6(6) 7-5 in the first round of the China Open
The world No.1 escaped from a perilous situation in a second set tiebreak before striking at the business end of the decider to secure an eighth straight win and maintain his interest in the competition.
Pouille has endured a difficult season after an impressive breakthrough campaign last year and his performance against the Spaniard provided a timely reminder of what he is capable of.
The Frenchman, like so many of his compatriots, has wonderful touch and finesse and he began the match impressively. He was the aggressor and Nadal was firmly in retreat mode.
Pouille earned his reward for a productive opening by moving a break and 4-3 ahead after his opponent surprisingly missed a makeable forehand. This was all the 23-year-old required to move halfway towards the winning post.
The Frenchman continued to unload on his groundstrokes throughout the second set however Nadal began to probe and press in an effort to find an avenue back into the match.
The top seed achieved a 0-40 situation on his rival’s serve in the eighth game but he was unable to make the most of his chances and was eventually taken to a second set tiebreak.
Pouille, who returned excellently for the duration of the contest, established a 6-4 lead in the shootout and he was on the cusp of a second success over his legendary opponent.
On his first match-point behind his delivery, Pouille netted a mid-court forehand that he would normally gobble up in without a second thought. He had squandered a glorious opportunity to claim a famous victory and he was soon embroiled in a third set decider.
It had been a stirring comeback from Nadal - as he has done so often throughout his illustrious career - and he was back in contention despite being below par.
To his credit, Pouille quickly regrouped and remained highly competitive however he was broken for the first time in the eleventh game of the third set - and Nadal completed the formalities on serve to end a dramatic encounter.
Elsewhere on the grounds of the China Open, Juan Martin del Potro, a wildcard entry, enjoyed a 7-6(4) 6-4 win over fellow South American, Pablo Cuevas. He will take on Grigor Dimitrov - who overcame the on-form Damir Dzumhur 6-1 3-6 6-3 - in the second round.
"I think I'm fresh," said del Potro afterwards. "I just came from home, so I'm strong to play the tournament. To have Dimitrov in the second round is not easy for me. He's one of the favourites to win the tournament. It could be a quarter-final, semi-final or the final match.”
John Isner brushed past Malek Jaziri 6-2 6-3 in just 52 minutes and Nick Kyrgios dropped just three games against Nikoloz Basilashvili. There were also wins for Tomas Berdych, Leonardo Mayer and Andrey Rublev.
At the ATP 500 event in Tokyo, Milos Raonic made a winning return in his first outing since the Montreal Masters in August. The Canadian did not drop serve as he dismissed Viktor Troicki 6-3 6-4 but he has still not fully recovered from a wrist injury.
“It was a good match for me in a lot of ways, disciplined and competed well – considering the circumstances,” said Raonic. “I couldn’t hit over a backhand, but I made the most of it.”
Richard Gasquet scored an impressive 6-4 7-6(2) win over World Tour Finals hopeful, Sam Querrey, and Steve Johnson took out No.2 seed, Dominic Thiem, 4-6 7-6(5) 6-4.
There was also first round delight for Diego Schwartzman, Matthew Ebden and Yen-Hsun Lu. Benoit Paire retired after just one set in his match with Yuichi Sugita.