MOSCOW, Oct 10 (Reuters) Marat Safin made an unimpressive return to tennis after a self-imposed six-week layoff, struggling to beat qualifier Denis Matsukevich in the Kremlin Cup first round.
The former world number one, who has not played since losing in the second round of the US Open, finally prevailed 7-6 7-5 against his 422nd-ranked compatriot.
''I thought he would be scared playing me on centre court,'' Safin said of Matsukevich, who was making his professional debut on the ATP Tour.
''But I guess he wasn't, at least not until the tiebreak. He served well and was solid from the baseline. He gave me a harder time than I was expecting,'' said a visibly tired Safin yesterday, sweat pouring down his face.
The powerful Russian was given a wildcard into the Moscow indoor tournament after struggling with form and injuries since winning his last title at the 2005 Australian Open.
SCALING MOUNTAINS He took a break from the game to refresh himself and was scaling mountains in the Himalayas last month.
He said of his trip: ''At least I've done something I wanted to do all my life. It was tough for a beginner like me but next time I have a chance, I'll try to be more prepared.'' Earlier, Safin's Davis Cup team mate, Nikolay Davydenko, began his Kremlin Cup title defence in workmanlike fashion, dispatching unseeded Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6 6-2.
The opening set went with serve until the tiebreak which the top seed won 7-0 before easing through the second.
''It took me a few games to adjust and he was serving well, so it was hard to break him in the first set,'' said the Russian world number four, who has been nursing a wrist injury.
''My wrist is still giving me problems. It was painful for the first 10 minutes of the match and I had to play through it.'' Davydenko, who beat Safin in last year's final, is hoping for another good showing in Moscow to secure a place in the season-ending Masters Cup in Shanghai next month.
Fourth seed Paul-Henri Mathieu, who won the first title of his career here in 2002, also moved swiftly into the second round with a 6-2 6-2 victory over fellow Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean.
Reuters TB VP0442