Tennis: Rafael Nadal edged past a dogged opponent in Mardy Fish to record a victory in his opening match at the ATP World Tour Finals – and then laid into Yannick Noah over his claims that Spanish sporting success is down to doping.
The Spaniard dropped a set but eventually prevailed 6-2 3-6 7-6. Yet rather than basking in victory he used his post-match press conference to aim some choice words at Noah.
Former French player Noah, who won the 1983 French Open, told French newspaper Le Monde: "Today if you don't have the magic potion, it's hard to win. How can a nation dominate sport virtually overnight like this?"
A furious Nadal hit back, saying: "What he said is completely stupid. This guy does not deserve to write in newspapers anymore."
Nadal added: "He knows better than anybody that to say that today is a totally stupid thing because you know how many anti-doping controls we have during the season, year by year.
"So in my opinion, the article that he wrote was from a kid and when one kid says something it's not painful for us."
Earlier a near capacity crowd welcomed Majorcan world number two Nadal to an O2 Arena delighted to see their hero taking to court against Fish.
The US world number eight was a surprise qualifier for the season ending championships and, with a hamstring injury causing him to pull out of the recent Paris Masters, few expected him to trouble Nadal.
True to form Nadal raced to a 3-1 lead, breaking Fish in his opening service game by simply going through the motions of keeping the ball in court.
Mardy, repeatedly committing unforced errors, looked utterly uncomfortable in the early stages and quickly found his serve broken again as Nadal took the seventh game with a smart return to lead 5-2 then followed it with a comfortable service hold of his own to secure the opening set.
Everything pointed toward a rapid fire victory for the Spanish number one, a worrying position for the Fish camp and any spectators hoping to see any kind of contest. This never seemed likely given the American’s inability to match Nadal’s quality in the rallies and touch at the front of the court.
But from nowhere Fish found his feet, his serve and his ground-strokes at the start of the second set. To both the delight and astonishment of the crowd, he began to trouble Nadal with consistent hard hitting of both wings, dragging the Spaniard wide before pounding winners down the line to seal points and eventually his first break of serve to move to 2-0. Another comfortable hold aided by an impressive serve volley combination consolidated his break at 3-0.
A couple of routine games preceded a hugely exciting game six with Fish knocking on the door of the second break on two occasions but each time being denied by Nadal’s grit.
On so many occasions such a game would have signalled the start of a comeback from Nadal, but Fish kept his cool on serve before almost breaking again in game eight, this time Nadal saving four set points on his way to a drawn out hold.
To the obvious pleasure of most of the crowd, Fish overcame an early wobble in game 10 as a double fault handed Rafa 15-30. The US star regained composure and saved one break-back point for the Spaniard with a cool backhand put away from the front court before taking the two points required for the set.
The players exchanged breaks early in the third set with Fish unable to maintain the level of play which had seen him control so much of the second.
Fish seemed perplexed after Nadal rushed off court for a toilet break having just broken the American’s serve in game two. Rafa, ever the gentlemen, apologised to Fish upon his return and again in his post match interview, citing stomach trouble as being behind the incident.
Two more breaks of serve followed, unforced errors from the Fish racquet preventing him from capitalising on moving ahead in game five.
The general standard was poor with both men struggling to find the consistency needed to see out the match which ultimately came down to a tie break after Fish managed to save two match points on his serve in game 10.
Sadly the decider failed to produce any of drama with more errors from Fish assisting Rafa on his way to a 7-3 tie-break victory.
Neither man will be happy with their night’s work. For Nadal, a stuttering performance leaves him much to ponder and not long to work on his game before a showdown with old foe Roger Federer on Tuesday evening.
As for Fish, it will be difficult for him to recover from a glaring missed opportunity to take a huge scalp and establish himself in the tournament. He too will need to improve if he hopes to challenge Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Tuesday afternoon.
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