WIMBLEDON, England – Two-time Wimbledon winner Rafael Nadal finally got his chance to walk out on Centre Court as the defending champion at the All England Club — and made the most of it.
The top-ranked Spaniard won the Wimbledon title in 2008, but he missed the following year's tournament because of injuries. He returned in 2010 and won again.
"Seriously, I never played in a court like this," Nadal said after beating American Michael Russell 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 Monday in the first round. "Was a big emotion (to) be the first player to play in this fabulous court."
Nadal won his 10th Grand Slam title this month at the French Open, and he can win the European major double for the third time in four years if he defends his title in southwest London.
But with Ryan Sweeting waiting in the second round, he's not even close to thinking that far ahead just yet.
"I am focused on my part of the draw. I'm focused on myself," said Nadal, who could meet Andy Murray in the semifinals and possibly Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic in the final. "So let's talk about today. Let's talk about tomorrow. Not let's talk about in 10 days or 12 days, because I don't know if I am here or I am fishing in Mallorca.
"You never know what's going on in a tournament like this."
Against Russell, the top-seeded Spaniard was a break down at 4-2 in the first set before reeling off six straight games to take the first set and a 2-0 lead in the second.
Nadal broke three times in the second set and twice in the third in the tournament's opening match on the biggest court.
And to make the victory extra special, Nadal's parents watched the match from the Royal Box.
"For sure can just say thanks to Wimbledon, to the people who organize this fantastic tournament to invite my mother and father to the Royal Box," Nadal said. "I think for them was a great experience."
Besides thinking of himself and his family, however, Nadal also took time to praise U.S. Open golf champion Rory McIlroy. The two stars met last year in New York.
"He played solid yesterday, doing what he had to do all the time, no mistakes," said Nadal, adding that he sent McIlroy a text message of congratulations. "When you have to defend the advantage, you start to play a little bit more defensive. Sometimes can be dangerous. And he did perfect. He managed the moments perfect, in my opinion."
The Northern Irishman could be in the crowd at Wimbledon next Monday, when all fourth-round matches are traditionally scheduled to be played.
"Hopefully," Nadal said, "(I'll) have the chance to congratulate him in person."