BEIJING • Rafael Nadal was broken four times by one of his former ball boys before the Spaniard struggled into the China Open second round in an unconvincing return to action yesterday.
The Spanish tennis great ultimately won 6-4, 6-4, but not before he trailed in the second set against China's 230th-ranked Wu Di, who once tossed him balls and towels in his native Shanghai.
Nadal, 29, was playing for the first time since his third-round defeat at the US Open, but it was a far from satisfying return as the 14-time Grand Slam winner continued to scratch around for form.
"We don't need to talk more about confidence, rhythm. That's my level today, and I'm going to work hard to try to improve my level," he said. "But tomorrow is another opportunity.
"I played a match today that I can play better, and I think I can play better tomorrow because I'm practising well."
On a heavily polluted day in Beijing, Wu broke the Spaniard early in the first set and did it again to go ahead in the second.
But with both players uneasy on serve, Nadal was able to wrap it up after 86 minutes and progress to a second-round meeting with Vasek Pospisil.
The eighth-ranked Spaniard has said that he is using the year's final events as practice for next season, after a forgettable 2015 in which he did not progress beyond the quarter-finals of any of the four Grand Slams.
As for Wu, 24, it was a memorable encounter. He had been a ball boy for Nadal at the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai and later progressed to become a practice partner.
"As for the ATP Finals (Tennis Masters Cup), I served as the ball boy for Rafa. So right now I played Rafa. It's not a small deal," he said.
In contrast to Nadal, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic had a 6-1, 6-1 win over Italy's Simone Bolelli.
In Tokyo, top seed and world No. 4 Stan Wawrinka , the French Open champion, muscled into the second round of the Japan Open with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Czech Radek Stepanek.
ATP CHINA OPEN
Day 3: Session 1 (12.30pm). Session 2 (9pm) - StarHub Ch201