TORONTO — Rafael Nadal stood out under overcast skies with a fluorescent pink shirt and a headband that glowed under the lights, but the world’s top-ranked tennis player had to work hard to distinguish himself against his first opponent at the Rogers Cup on Wednesday night.
The 24-year-old wrestled through a marathon first set tiebreak before he was finally able to shake Swiss challenger Stanislas Wawrinka with a 7-6 (12), 6-3 win on centre court at Rexall Place.
“My goal was to win,” Nadal said. “When you come back after (some) time without playing, tournaments are always difficult. I just tried my best and tried to find my rhythm.”
Several of the other big names entered in the US$2.43-million event had already secured passage to the next round at York University. Novak Djokovic overcame struggles with the intense afternoon heat to earn a 7-5, 7-5 win over France’s Julien Benneteau.
Britain’s Andy Murray began his quest for a second straight title in Canada with a 7-5, 6-2 win over Belgian Xavier Malisse in a late afternoon game. Russian Nikolay Davydenko rolled to a 7-5, 6-1 win over Italian Fabio Fognini in one of the other early matches.
Meanwhile, Canada lost its last hope of winning a title when Peter Polansky was ousted from the singles draw with a 6-4, 7-6 loss to Romanian Victor Hanescu. The 22-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., had upset No. 15-ranked Austrian Jurgen Melzer in the first round.
Nadal arrived in Toronto in the midst of a season he aptly described as being “more than a dream,” having acquired the French Open and Wimbledon titles among five tournament victories on the ATP World Tour.
He proclaimed himself to be in fine physical fitness, with no concern for his meddlesome knees as he sought to recapture a title he last won two years ago. Nadal has twice won the Canadian event, having defeated none other than Andre Agassi for his first title in 2005.
Wawrinka, ranked 24th in the world, is not in that class, though it was often hard to tell on Wednesday night. The 25-year-old from Switzerland stood toe-to-toe with Nadal through the first set, breaking the Spaniard’s serve moments after he had his serve broken.
Wawrinka had already played on centre court this week, having ousted Canadian hopeful Frank Dancevic in straight sets on Tuesday night. And it seemed like he never wanted to leave on Wednesday.
He battled Nadal deep into the first set tiebreak, fending off whatever the lanky Spaniard could muster. Nadal had a chance to put it away at 10-9, but sent his return into the net as Wawrinka tumbled to the ground on the other side.
Nadal finally took it, 14-12, on serve, to end the first set after 92 minutes. It matched the longest tiebreak of Nadal’s career — a mark he set two years ago in the quarter-final round of the Canadian event. He broke a tiring Wawrinka to go up 3-1 in the second set, and will face South Africa’s Kevin Anderson on centre court Thursday.
“I had difficult moments, I had moments where I played well,” Nadal said. “I did a little bit of everything, and that’s very positive.”
Like Nadal, Djokovic is also a former Canadian champion. He won during his debut three years ago, and has made it to the quarter-final round in each of the past two years.
He was on the court with Benneteau for two hours and 12 minutes on Wednesday, where temperatures reached 28 C, and where it felt like 37 C with humidity.
“It’s just something that you cannot fight against,” Djokovic said. “Nobody can turn off the sun and just do me a favour, even though I would like it.”