Madrid (AFP) – Novak Djokovic scored his best-ranked victory in almost a year by coming through his nightmare first round against world number 20 Kei Nishikori at the Madrid Open on Monday.
The 12-time major champion could now face Kyle Edmund in round two, if the Briton wins his own awkward opener on Tuesday against the talented Daniil Medvedev.
Not long ago, Djokovic versus Nishikori would have been a match for the latter stages of a grand slam but struggles with fitness and form caused these two to meet first up on Manolo Santana.
Djokovic prevailed 7-5, 6-4, producing some scintillating tennis when it mattered most to register his first win over a top-20 opponent since the Serb beat Gael Monfils at Eastbourne in June last year.
At their best, Djokovic and Nishikori were perhaps the game’s two outstanding athletes, renowned for their speed in defence and stamina over five sets.
But injuries, to the wrist for Nishikori and elbow for Djokovic, have left each attempting recoveries and it was certainly evident here that both are still some way away.
If Edmund beats Medvedev, he may fancy his chances against a player he is yet to take a set off in three meetings.
Djokovic, however, will be keen to draw on the positives. His movement was better and he delivered in the crunch moments. There were also a handful of breathtaking retrievals the 30-year-old would have been proud of in his prime.
Four games both players would have liked to forget prompted an exchange of breaks in the middle of the opening set but Djokovic stepped up a gear at 5-4.
Nishikori resisted two rasping forehands but finally caved two games later as Djokovic clinched the frame.
Djokovic seemingly defied physics by lashing one smash into the net early in the second but found his groove again at 5-4, breaking Nishikori to seal victory in just under two hours.
Maria Sharapova’s clay-court revival is also gathering pace after the Russian had earlier eased past Romanian big-hitter Irina-Camelia Begu in the women’s tournament.
Sharapova arrived in Spain on the back of four consecutive defeats but two wins, the latest a 7-5, 6-1 victory over Begu, have sent the 31-year-old into the last 16.
France’s Kristina Mladenovic will now await Sharapova, who is showing signs of rhythm ahead of the French Open later this month, which she won in 2012 and 2014.