- Associated Press - Monday, March 4, 2013

NEW YORK (AP) - Rafael Nadal wasn’t too worried about playing on a hard court Monday night.

It was an exhibition against Juan Martin del Potro, his first chance to compete at Madison Square Garden.

But when the 11-time Grand Slam champion heads to the hard courts for an official match later this week at Indian Wells, he doesn’t know how his balky knee will respond.

Just the fact that he’s planning to play in California is encouraging for Nadal in his comeback from injury.

A week ago, he wasn’t sure if his left knee could handle it. Then came his performance at the Mexican Open _ capped by a dominating victory over fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, the world’s fourth-ranked player, in Saturday’s final.

“I started to feel free to run to every ball,” Nadal said at a news conference Monday morning, hours before the BNP Paribas Showdown. “That’s fantastic for me.”

Nadal later lost 7-6 (4), 6-4 to the 2009 U.S. Open champ, but had a wide smile on his face for most of the night. An exhibition may not be as demanding as an official match, but he clearly moved without fear of pain, leaping for overheads and crashing into the wall behind the baseline chasing down a ball.

Del Potro knows what it’s like to return from a long layoff _ the Argentine missed eight months in 2010 because of a wrist injury.

“It’s amazing how great he’s recovered,” he said of Nadal in an on-court interview after the match.

“He’s going to be fighting for No. 1 very, very soon,” del Potro added.

On one point, the two exchanged between-the-legs shots and headers that would have made countrymen Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta proud.

In the exhibition tradition of bringing a celebrity from the stands onto the court, Nadal and actor Ben Stiller briefly played doubles against del Potro and a little girl from the crowd _ who proved to be a better volley-er than the actor.

In the first match, top-ranked Serena Williams beat No. 2 Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 6-3.

Nadal’s first three tournaments back after missing seven months have been on clay _ the best surface even before the injury for the seven-time French Open champ. The hard courts are far more punishing on his body, and he has talked about perhaps playing on them less.

Still, he’d like to stick with the same full event schedule as in past years. Indian Wells, with an expected field that boasts the top men’s players in the world, will help determine whether that is possible.

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