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.
"That will be a big test for me," Nadal said. "Today I know I can play on clay; that's a very important thing to know for me."
This was the first event for Williams and Azarenka since they faced off in the Qatar Open final Feb. 17. Azarenka won that one 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3 to snap a 10-match losing streak against Williams, which included the U.S. Open final.
Both looked rusty Monday, with little of the electricity of their three-set thriller a few miles away at Flushing Meadows in September.
They finally started showing some shot-making in the eighth game, when Azarenka's lob landed on the baseline, drawing applause from the American. Williams, who hurt her ankle and back at the Australian Open, ran all the way into the barrier at the front of the stands to chase down a shot later in the game.
She raced back to the middle of the court, and Azarenka hit her overhead into the net. Williams plopped down to the ground for some rest.
Down triple break point in the fourth game of the second set, Williams suddenly regained her trademark big serve to rally back. Azarenka, who has yet to lose an official match this year while defending her Aussie title, was broken six times in 10 service games.
Facing break point at 3-3, she seemed to realize it was time to dispense with the serious tennis. Azarenka called her No. 1 fan, pop star Redfoo, onto the court to take over for a point. He showed good pace if not accuracy on his serve.
"He needs to practice before his exhibition," Azarenka joked later.
Williams and Azarenka also played a couple of rallies left-handed in honor of Nadal. They revealed they're planning to shoot a karaoke video together to Rihanna's "Stay."
Williams said Azarenka is one of the few players she's close to off the court.
"We really respect each other," Williams said. "I love Victoria as a person. I love how she's so competitive on the court."
-- Rachel Cohen
Djokovic teams with Sampras in L.A. exhibition
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Still struggling with jet lag and time zone changes, top-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia beat Mardy Fish in an exhibition match at the inaugural Los Angeles Tennis Challenge on Monday night in the American's return to the court after a six-month absence caused by a heart condition.
The event, put together by Fish and retired player Justin Gimelstob, survived a broken net and the lights going out during a doubles match featuring Djokovic and childhood idol Pete Sampras against the top-ranked team of Bob and Mike Bryan at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. The brothers won.
Djokovic won a pro set in a tiebreaker against Fish two days after the Serb won the Dubai Championships and flew to Los Angeles, arriving in time to attend a Lakers game on Sunday night. Fish, who's been off the ATP Tour since September, plans to return to competition at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., starting later this week. Djokovic is headed to the desert, too.
"I like where my game is," said Djokovic, who got the loudest applause from the crowd of 8,500 in the arena that is home to UCLA's basketball team. The fast hard-court surface was installed over the basketball court.
Djokovic won the tiebreaker 7-2 against the 32nd-ranked Fish, who got to test himself against the world's best men's player in a match that didn't affect rankings or points.
"Tonight was a big test for sure to see where I was in a setting with a lot of people," Fish said from a massage table as a therapist stretched him out after the match. "It didn't feel like a U.S. Open match, but it did feel like a lot of people and friends were there. To come through felt pretty good, but I don't feel 100 percent."
Djokovic most enjoyed teaming with Sampras, whom he credits for getting him interested in the sport as a child when he watched Sampras win one of his seven Wimbledon titles.
"It was such a blast to share the court with Pete," Djokovic said. "I always wanted to play a match with him or against him just to share the court with him. All the memories come back to me. He's such a great man off the court."
Sampras has kept a low profile since retiring in 2002. He rarely plays the game that brought him fame and fortune.
"I haven't played in four months. I don't want to embarrass myself," he said. "I actually played OK."
Fish and Gimelstob came up with the idea of staging an exhibition in Los Angeles a year ago after hearing that the city might lose its longtime ATP tournament on the UCLA campus. Indeed, the tournament went away in November, with its ATP sanction sold to Bogota, Colombia.
"If you don't have the players, it's not going to be successful," said Sampras, who made the tournament a success when he often played it along with Andre Agassi and Michael Chang during his career. "This is a name-driven city and they didn't have the names. It was a struggle getting sponsors."
All the players at the exhibition except Djokovic have ties to Los Angeles. Gimelstob, now a Tennis Channel commentator, played collegiately at UCLA, Fish, Haas and Sampras live here, and the Bryan brothers are from nearby Camarillo. Djokovic was playing in LA for the first time.
The opening match between No. 19 Tommy Haas and James Blake was delayed for 20 minutes after Haas' serve broke the net, causing it to sag. The players killed time while it was replaced by partnering for some impromptu mixed doubles with two young girls.
The eight-game pro set was reduced to five games, and it ended with Haas winning 7-5 in a tiebreak after Blake held to tie it at 5-all.
Among the celebs in attendance were Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, actors Bruce Willis, Rainn Wilson, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Ali Larter and Boris Kodjoe, and Dr. Phil. Wilson climbed into the referee's chair to provide comic commentary during the doubles match.
-- Beth Harris
Hingis to enter International Tennis Hall of Fame
NEW YORK (AP) — Five-time Grand Slam singles champion Martina Hingis leads the 2013 class for the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
The other new members of the Hall announced Monday are Cliff Drysdale, Charlie Pasarell and Ion Tiriac. Australian player Thelma Coyne Long's election was announced earlier.
Hingis won 15 major titles, including nine in women's doubles and one in mixed. The first came at Wimbledon in women's doubles in 1996 at 15 years, 9 months, making her the youngest Grand Slam champion in tennis history.
The Swiss star also was the youngest woman to reach No. 1 in the WTA singles rankings, getting there in March 1997 at 16½, and spent a total of 209 weeks in the top spot. Hingis spent 35 weeks at No. 1 in doubles, too.
"She obviously had a Hall of Fame career," said Serena Williams, who beat Hingis in the 1999 U.S. Open final. "She achieved so much at such an early age and did so much for the sport, inspired me a lot to play."
In 1997, Hingis won singles titles at three of the four Grand Slam tournaments — the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open — and lost in the French Open final. She was honored as the WTA Tour Player of the Year and AP Female Athlete of the Year.
Hingis, often troubled by foot injuries, retired for the second time in 2007, when she drew a two-year suspension for positive for cocaine at Wimbledon. Hingis denied taking the drug but did not appeal the ruling.
She finished with 43 titles in singles and 37 in doubles. Her singles record was 548-133. Hingis also led Switzerland to its only Fed Cup final in 1998 before losing to Spain.
Hingis was elected in the recent player category, while Drysdale, Pasarell and Tiriac entered the Hall in the contributor category.
Two nominees who were not elected: 1991 Wimbledon champion Michael Stich and Helena Sukova. One of Sukova's nine Grand Slam titles in women's doubles came at Wimbledon in 1996 with Hingis.
Drysdale played in the 1960s and 1970s and reached a No. 4 ranking. He then helped start the ATP men's tour, serving as its first president from 1972-74. He has been an ESPN tennis announcer since its first telecast of the sport — U.S. vs. Argentina in Davis Cup — in 1979.
Pasarell played on UCLA's NCAA championship team and was a member of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Like Drysdale, he was a key figure at the start of the ATP. Passarell was long associated with the tournament at Indian Wells, Calif.
Following his own playing career, which included the 1970 French Open men's doubles title, Tiriac has held key roles as a coach, player manager and tournament promoter. His most noted client was Hall of Fame member Boris Becker.
The induction ceremony is July 13 in Newport, R.I.
Sampras says he thinks tennis is free of doping
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Pete Sampras believes tennis is free of performance-enhancing drugs now, as well as during his 14-year pro career that ended in 2002.
The winner of 14 Grand Slam titles says other than "a random case here and there" he doesn't see the top players engaging in doping.
All top tennis players are subject to being tested without warning. The admission in January by Lance Armstrong that he used banned substances in all seven of his Tour de France victories has increased the focus on doping in all sports.
"It's just my feeling," Sampras said Monday night after playing doubles with top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the Los Angeles Tennis Challenge exhibition.
"I don't think players are that sophisticated in tennis," he said, referring to the elaborate system Armstrong used to avoid detection. "It's not their culture. I don't think it's in their nature."
Last month, the International Tennis Federation banned 124th-ranked Barbora Zahlavova Strycova of the Czech Republic for six months for doping. She tested positive for the stimulant sibutramine at a tournament last fall. She said the drug got into her system through a supplement and denied taking it to enhance her performance.
"It's a random case here or there," Sampras said. "I don't see the top guys messing around with that. Maybe I'm naive."
-- Beth Harris