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Beyond the Baseline

Rafael Nadal beats Ryan Harrison at Indian Wells in hard-court return

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal looked tentative at times but still managed to defeat Ryan Harrison in straight sets. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- His forehand was spotty and his movement was, at times, tentative, but Rafael Nadal's return to hard courts for the first time in almost a year was a successful one, as he dismissed Ryan Harrison 7-6 (3), 6-2 in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open on Saturday.

Here are three thoughts on Nadal's victory:

Nadal's movement was tentative: It wasn't the scintillating form that he displayed in Acapulco, Mexico, but the win earns Nadal exactly what he needs: another match.

"I need to compete," Nadal told reporters. "If you win, you have more chances. If you have more chances, you will compete more and you will practice more and you will be ready to put yourself in 100 percent condition in a short period of time."

Nadal raced to a 4-1 lead in the first set before playing a horrible game at 4-2 to get broken and let Harrison back into the match.

"I feel that I was playing OK," he said. "Nothing special, but OK. I played [a] fantastic game [at 4-2] with one double fault, three forehands outside of the stadium," he joked. "After that, the set became very tricky."

Harrison tried to mix up the rhythm with some well-timed serve and volleying, but Nadal was simply too good, as he rolled through the tiebreaker and then played a more relaxed second set to run away with the match. Nadal's performance didn't give much confidence that he could win the title here, but as he's said all week, that's not necessarily his goal.

"I don't expect big result," he said, "but just be here, practice with the other players, compete like tonight I did, have another chance after tomorrow."

This is, of course, to be expected from Nadal in his first hard-court match since Miami last year, especially given his overall trepidation when it comes to playing on hard courts. Confidence will come with each step he takes on the surface and it was evident that there's still a mental hurdle he has to overcome to commit to his movement the way he needs to. We're used to seeing Nadal lunge and slide around the hard courts when he's at his best, but he was noticeably tentative when pulled wide and digging out of the corners. Nadal looked more relieved than happy about his level in the match.

"My physical performance needs to improve. My movements need to improve," he said.

Nadal may already be looking to clay: He's here, and he'll try his best as he always does, but is Nadal's heart really in this tournament? Reading the tea leaves, I'm not entirely sure. It's hard to shake the sense that Nadal already has his mind on the clay-court season as he competes this week. During his pre-tournament press conference, he reeled off the next tournaments he intends to play and noticeably absent was Miami, another hard-court ATP Masters 1000, which begins immediately after Indian Wells. Whether he simply misspoke or the omission was intentional is unclear, but if he's already planning to skip Miami, then there's less incentive to throw himself into this tournament like he has in the past.

American men going the wrong way: With the loss, the 73rd-ranked Harrison will fall to no better than No. 88 in the rankings. That's quite the tumble from last July, when he reached a career-high of No. 43. It's easy to forget that he's just 20 years old and the expectations have to be curbed, especially on a day that saw America's No. 1, John Isner, get dumped out by Lleyton Hewitt.

Patience is key with Harrison. Yes, he can play too defensively, and yes, it would be great to see him amp up his forehand and take more initiative in the rallies as opposed to relying on his defense. Ideally, his game will evolve over time and for now he's right to focus on the process and experience.

"I'm not 21 yet and I've played against a top player on center court of every single Slam," he said. "That's a lot of experience for someone that hasn't gotten past the second round of a major."

Still, these are dry times for American men's tennis. Andy Roddick's retirement last September has left a gaping hole that no current player seems able (or willing) to fill. Depending on Sam Querrey's and Mardy Fish's results this week, it's possible that there will be no American men in the top 20 for the first time since computer rankings were introduced. With Roddick gone, Isner slumping and Fish on the mend, it's hard to see when this trend will stop.

"Three years ago it was, ‘You guys haven't had a Grand Slam champion,'" Harrison said, "and then it was, 'You haven't had a top 10,' and now it's top 20. It's going the wrong direction. We are going to turn it around soon."

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