BEIJING: Rafael Nadal made a successful debut in the Olympic tennis men’s singles on Monday, overcoming numerous missed chances by sweeping the final four games to beat Potito Starace of Italy 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 in the first round.

Nadal, who will replace Federer as World No. 1 next Monday, opened proceedings on Centre Court clad in the red and yellow of his national flag as Prince Felipe of Spain looked on.

After rattling through the first set with some flashing winners he was pegged back when Starace took the second set with some resilient tennis of his own.

Top-seeded Roger Federer began a bid for his first Olympic medal by beating Dmitry Tursunov 6-4, 6-2, then received congratulations from one of the spectators, U.S. basketball star LeBron James.

Venus and Serena Williams also advanced to the second round, as did Novak Djokovic, the biggest threat to prevent a Nadal-Federer final.

Nadal had the crowd gasping with one incredible pick-up from a Starace drop shot early in the decider as he regained his momentum. A dispirited Starace dumped a drop shot into the net to hand Nadal his first victory in Olympic tennis.

Nadal played doubles but not singles at the Athens Olympics in 2004. He’s playing both at Beijing, staying in the athletes’ village and hoping to sustain a summer surge that has assured him of the No. 1 ranking next week.

“I am very happy to be here,” Nadal said. “Just trying to enjoy 100 per cent the experience, and later try my best on court.”

Federer, seeded top as the outgoing No. 1, warned he was gunning to reclaim the top spot after a confidence-boosting performance against Tursunov.

“My goal is to try to get the No. 1 ranking back,” he said.

“I need to play well again. I need to win the big matches. That’s what I’m looking at the moment.”

Williams sisters win

In the women’s singles, seventh-seeded Venus Williams, playing her first match since winning Wimbledon for the fifth time, beat Switzerland’s Timea Bacsinszky 6-3, 6-2. Williams, who swept the gold medals in singles and doubles in 2000, showed no sign of the knee injury that sidelined her in recent weeks.

“I feel really good about the match — not a lot of unforced errors, no service breaks,” Williams said. “I did the right things to come out on top.”

Her sister Serena, seeded fourth, won all four games when her match resumed after an overnight rain interruption, and she beat Olga Govortsova of Belarus, 6-3, 6-1.

Like Nadal, Serena Williams was playing her first singles match at the Olympics. She won a gold medal in doubles in 2000 with sister Venus.

“It’s a great thing going out there playing for your country,” Serena said.

She said she skipped Beijing’s opening ceremonies because she goes to bed early, and decided against staying in the athletes’ village because she likes privacy. Last week, she visited the village, where she was a popular subject for those seeking photos and autographs.

“I was bombarded with lots of people,” she said. “It was a lot. I can’t count. But it was cool, I guess.” Third-seeded Djokovic beat Robby Ginepri of the United States 6-4, 6-4, and Igor Andreev of Russia defeated Sam Querrey of the United States 6-4, 6-4.

Ferrer, Murray lose

Meanwhile, No. 5 David Ferrer and No. 6 Andy Murray were eliminated. Murray lost to Lu Yen-Hsun 7-6, 6-4 in the first round. Janko Tipsarevic beat Ferrer 7-6(8), 6-2. Nicolas Massu of Chile beat Steve Darcis of Belgium 6-4, 7-5. Massu won the gold at Athens in both singles and doubles.

Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt, the former World No. 1, beat Swedish veteran Jonas Bjorkman 7-5, 7-6 to set up a second round tie with Nadal. — Agencies

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