Despite returning to clay, rusty Nadal battles to win

BUENOS AIRES • Rafael Nadal returned to action on Thursday for the first time since his shock first-round Australian Open exit with a straight-sets win over Juan Monaco in the Argentina Open.

The defending champion, however, was not at his sharpest in a rematch of last year's final despite playing on his beloved clay.

The Spaniard dropped serve three times and committed 15 unforced errors in the first set alone - and his game was not pretty, especially coming against an underdone Monaco, playing his first tournament in six months.

But Nadal broke Monaco in the final game of each set to emerge with a 6-4, 6-4 victory in 1hr 38min. He set up a quarter-final clash with Italy's Paolo Lorenzi, a 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 winner over Diego Schwartzman.

Monaco had not played a tournament since undergoing right wrist surgery in August last year. Coming into the match, the 2007 Buenos Aires champion had won just 18 games in 14 sets played in six career meetings on clay against Nadal. But the Spaniard was not able to build much momentum against him.

Monaco earned the first break of the second set en route to a 3-1 lead and, after breaking back for 3-3, Nadal was in trouble again with two double faults to trail 15-30 in the ninth game. He held on, sealing the game with a trademark forehand winner down the line to force Monaco to serve to extend the match.

The Buenos Aires clay has been fertile ground for Nadal in the past, and the 29-year-old world No. 5, owner of 14 Grand Slam titles, admitted when he sought a wild card for the tournament that he hoped he would be able to get his 2016 campaign back on track here.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ARGENTINA OPEN

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2016, with the headline 'Despite returning to clay, rusty Nadal battles to win'. Print Edition | Subscribe