Rafael Nadal was broken four times by one of his former ball boys before he struggled into the China Open second round in an unconvincing return to action on Tuesday.
The Spanish great ultimately won 6-4 6-4, but not before he trailed in the second set against China’s 230th-ranked Wu Di, who once tossed him balls and towels in his native Shanghai.
On a day where resurgent Australian John Millman enjoyed an upset win over veteran Tommy Robredo and world No.1 went through the motions with a victory over Simone Bolelli, Nadal struggled.
The 29 year-old was playing for the first time since his third-round defeat at the US Open, but it was a far from satisfying return as the 14-time grand slam-winner continued to scratch around for form.
“We don’t need to talk more about confidence, rhythm. That’s my level today, and I’m going to work hard to try to improve my level of today,” he said.
“But tomorrow is another opportunity. I played a match today that I can play better, and I think I can play better tomorrow because I’m practising well.”
On a heavily polluted day in Beijing, Wu anticipated superbly when he lunged for a forehand volley winner for his first break of the Spaniard early in the first set, and he wasn’t done yet.
Wu broke again to go ahead in the second set but with both players uneasy on serve, Nadal was able to wrap it up after 86 minutes and progress to a second-round meeting with Vasek Pospisil.
Eighth-ranked Nadal has said he’s using the year’s final events as practise for next season, after a forgettable 2015 in which he didn’t progress beyond the quarter-finals of any of the Grand Slams.
As for Wu, 24, it was a memorable encounter after he was a ball boy for Nadal at the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai and later progressed to become a practice partner.
“As for the ATP Finals (Tennis Masters Cup), I served as the ball boy for Rafa. So right now I played Rafa. It’s not a small deal,” he said.
Meanwhile Millman had one of the biggest wins of his career when he powered home over Robredo 4-6 6-1 6-0.
Djokovic clinically dispatched Bolelli 6-1 6-1.