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Nadal grinds past Nieminen in Monte Carlo

ESPN staff
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Rafael Nadal will meet Mikhail Kukushkin in the third round © PA Photos
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Seven-time defending champion Rafael Nadal made a subdued return to action at the Monte Carlo Masters as he laboured past a determined Jarkko Nieminen.

Making his first appearance since he suffered a knee injury at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami last month, Nadal showed no signs of impediment as he progressed to the third round with a 6-4 6-3 victory.

However, it was a far from vintage performance from the world No. 2, who is bidding for an eighth straight title at the Monte Carlo Country Club.

While top seed Novak Djokovic enjoyed a routine win over Andreas Seppi earlier on Wednesday, Nadal was some way off his best as he eventually prevailed against Nieminen in an entertaining match on Court Central.

With a recurrence of the knee injury that threatened to derail his career in 2009, Nadal had admitted to nerves ahead of his first match on the red dirt.

But any question marks over his fitness were quickly erased as Nadal immediately stamped his authority on the match with an early break.

However, he did not have things all his own way and Nieminen showed real persistence, responding admirably to keep himself in the contest. Nadal was forced to fend off the Finn after he twice got to deuce on the Spaniard's service game, but he ultimately came through the opening set unscathed thanks to his rapid start.

Nieminen was growing in confidence and comfortably held serve in the second set, but Nadal stepped up his game to grab two breaks and move within one game of victory.

The world No. 48 showed impressive strength of character to break Nadal as the Spaniard served for the match, but his hard work was instantly undone as he gifted his opponent the victory with double fault on match point.

Next up for Nadal, who has now won 40 of his 41 matches in Monte Carlo, is Kazakh qualifier Mikhail Kukushkin, who booked his place in the third round with a hard-fought 7-6(8) 2-6 6-2 win over Italy's Filippo Volandri.

Last year's finalist David Ferrer was the highest-profile casualty as he made a shock early exit at the hands of Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci. The world No. 6 appeared to be struggling with a shoulder problem as he bowed out in a 6-3 6-2 defeat, while Jurgen Melzer also tasted defeat.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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