Returning Nadal regains some confidence at Australian Open
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) If Rafael Nadal needed any reminding of how long it has been since he won the Australian Open, he only needed to look at the "09" on the back of his left shoe.
After spending most of the last six months on the sidelines in an extended injury layoff, and after a first-round loss in a warm-up tournament, the 14-time Grand Slam winner said he was low on confidence coming into the first major of the year.
The Spaniard remedied that, for a while at least, with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 win over Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny on day one of the Australian Open, where he won the title in 2009 and lost in the finals in 2012 and last year. Nadal hit 37 winners, and got his skipping, double fist-pumping celebration going during the third set.
"Very positive result for me. I think very good start," he said. "Always before the first match you always have the doubts, especially in this situation I'm arriving here. Never easy, but it was an important match for me ... a comfortable victory that give me some confidence."
The Australian Open is the only major Nadal hasn't won at least twice, and he has long wanted another triumph in Melbourne to complete a second full career Grand Slam. He has come close, losing to Novak Djokovic in a 5-hour, 53-minute epic final in 2012 and to Stan Wawrinka last year.
A right wrist injury and an appendix operation that limited Nadal to seven matches after Wimbledon have taught him the benefits of patience.
And a Jan. 5 loss to Michael Berrer in Doha helps keep him grounded.
"When that happens after a tough period of injuries you arrive here with doubts," he said. "This first match was tough mentally for me.
"Today is very hard to speak about having (title) chances. I have one match. That's better than two days ago, but I need more to feel that I am ready for something very important here. It's the moment to really give to this victory the right value."
Roger Federer began his quest for an 18th major title, and his first in Australia since 2010, by beating Lu Yen-hsun of Taiwan 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 in a night match, and three-time Australian Open finalist Andy Murray opened his bid for an elusive Aussie title with a 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (3) win over Indian qualifier Yuki Bhambri.
On a day when eight of the seeded players tumbled out of the women's draw, wins by three of the stronger contenders stood out.
Second-ranked Maria Sharapova followed up her recent title at the Brisbane International with a 6-4, 6-1 win over Petra Martic, No. 3 Simona Halep opened play on Rod Laver Arena with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Karin Knapp and No. 7 Eugenie Bouchard, who reached the semifinals or better at three majors last year, beat Anna-Lena Friedsam 6-2, 6-4.
No. 10 Ekaterina Makarova, No. 14 Sara Errani, No. 21 Peng Shuai and No. 22 Karolina Pliskova also advanced.
Sharapova, the 2008 Australian Open champion, collected her fifth Grand Slam title by winning at the French Open last year and is determined to add more majors.
"It was definitely great to get a title in last week. I don't think I've done that in my career, winning a title to begin the year," she said. "That was nice. When you come here everything is new and fresh. Of course, it's a nice feeling to have that victory, but you have to start from scratch."
No. 5 Ana Ivanovic, who lost the Brisbane final to Sharapova on Jan. 10, was the highest-ranked of the first-round losers, serving 10 double-faults in a 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 loss to Czech qualifier Lucie Hradecka. No. 9 Angelique Kerber, No. 16 Lucie Safarova, No. 17 Carla Suarez Navarro and No. 27 Svetlana Kuznetsova, a two-time major winner, were also among the seeded players who stumbled on day one.
American Christina McHale was sick on court and saved a match point as she rallied to beat Stephanie Foretz 6-4, 1-6, 12-10.
Only two of the men's seeded players went out. No. 11 Ernests Gulbis wasted four match points before losing in five sets to Thanasi Kokkinakis, an 18-year-old Australian who went around the court high-fiving fans to celebrate. No. 15 Tommy Robredo retired with a groin injury after five games.
No. 7 Tomas Berdych, No. 10 Grigor Dimitrov, and No. 14 Kevin Anderson were among the men who advanced.
Top-ranked Djokovic, a four-time Australian Open champion, was due to open Tuesday against Aljaz Bedene. Women's No. 1 Serena Williams, who has won five titles at Melbourne Park, had a Tuesday night start against Alison Van Uytvanck.