March 5 (Bloomberg) -- Juan Martin del Potro defeated Rafael Nadal in an exhibition tennis match between former U.S. Open champions at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Nadal’s first competitive appearance on a hard court in 12 months.
Argentina’s Del Potro was a 7-6 (7-4), 6-4 winner last night in the BNP Paribas Showdown, which also featured a women’s match between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, the top two players in the WTA Tour rankings. Williams won 6-4, 6-3.
Nadal, an 11-time Grand Slam champion who missed seven months due to knee injuries, was back on a hard-court surface for the first time since March 2012, when he played in the ATP Sony Open in Miami. Nadal and Del Potro mixed hard-hitting groundstrokes with light-hearted moments and acrobatic play, including numerous between-the-legs shots.
“It was an amazing opportunity to play here at Madison Square Garden,” Nadal, a 26-year-old Spaniard, said in a televised interview. “This kind of thing just happens once in life and we tried to enjoy it as much as possible.”
Nadal has won two of the three clay-court events he’s played since returning, including a 6-0, 6-2 rout of fourth-ranked David Ferrer in the Mexican Open final on March 2.
Currently fifth in the ATP Tour rankings, Nadal is scheduled to play his first hard-court tournament of the season this week at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California.
Nadal’s knee injuries forced the 2010 U.S. Open champion to miss last year’s tournament, so last night’s match was his first in New York in 18 months. Del Potro, 24, won the U.S. Open in 2009.
“It was fantastic for me playing against Rafa in this stadium,” said Del Potro, who’s ranked seventh in the world. “The good thing for everybody is that Rafa is back. It’s amazing how quickly he’s recovered and he’s playing really well. He’s going to be fighting for the No. 1 very soon.”
Del Potro won the final five points of a tiebreaker to take the first set and took control of the second set when he broke Nadal’s serve for a 3-2 lead. During one point early in the second set, both players hit shots between their legs while Nadal returned another ball off his head.
After having his service broken in the second set, Nadal pulled actor Ben Stiller out of the stands to play several points as his doubles partner. Del Potro enlisted the help of a preteen girl, who won over the crowd by hitting several winners without an error during their rallies.
“Ben was fantastic to come out here tonight. He needs to practice a little more tennis,” Nadal joked. “And to play with a kid is a fantastic experience for all of the fans and for her, too. We enjoyed all of the show.”
In the 2012 event at Madison Square Garden, Andy Roddick beat Roger Federer in straight sets.
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