By Mark Lamport-Stokes
INDIAN WELLS, California (Reuters) - Four-times champion Roger Federer was delighted to welcome back to the ATP Tour his long-time rival Rafa Nadal, a man he could face in the quarter-finals of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.
Spaniard Nadal has slipped to fifth in the world rankings after being sidelined for seven months last year due to a left knee injury and is seeded to meet Federer in the last eight of the elite ATP Masters 1000 event in the California desert.
"I only just saw him yesterday after my practice, I was really excited to see him again," Swiss world number two Federer told reporters at Indian Wells on Thursday as the men's tournament began.
"We haven't had much contact. I think he really wanted to get away from it all, which I totally understand.
"I was really happy to see him doing so well in Acapulco and it's great to see him here playing on the hard courts. I'm hoping to catch up with him this week."
Left-hander Nadal returned to the ATP circuit last month in South America where he competed in three relatively minor claycourt events, winning two of them after reaching all three finals.
He gave himself a huge confidence boost for Indian Wells, where he is a twice former champion, by overpowering fellow Spaniard David Ferrer 6-0 6-2 in the final of the Mexican Open in Acapulco on Sunday.
Federer returns to one of his favorite venues for the Indian Wells event but the Swiss maestro is still seeking his first ATP title of the year after producing contrasting form in his first three tournaments.
After reaching the Australian Open semi-finals, where he lost to Andy Murray, Federer was beaten by Julien Benneteau in the Rotterdam quarter-finals before squandering three match points in a semi-final defeat by Tomas Berdych in Dubai.
"I played really well in Australia," said Federer, a 17-times grand slam champion. "Rotterdam, I was disappointed because I thought I could have done better. I played so well the year before and I never really got going against Benneteau.
"And in Dubai I was a bit unfortunate losing with three match points, and having to explain the loss when you feel you should be preparing for the final.
"What happened, happened. I am playing fine. Obviously I would have hoped to have won a tournament by now but overall I am happy with my game."
While Federer and Nadal, as seeded players, have a bye into the second round at Indian Wells, former world number three David Nalbandian of Argentina advanced with a 6-4 6-2 win over Spaniard Marcel Granollers in the first round on Thursday.
Also progressing were twice former champion Lleyton Hewitt, who battled past Czech Lukas Rosol 6-4 3-6 6-1 in cold and blustery conditions, and fellow Australian Bernard Tomic, who overpowered Brazil's Thomaz Bellucci 6-4 6-3.
Hewitt, winner here in 2002 and 2003, will next meet big-serving American John Isner, who lost to Federer in last year's final at Indian Wells.
"It's going to be a tough match," former world number one Hewitt said of his second-round opponent. "I've had the better of him in the past, then lost to him in a tight match in the final of Newport last year."
In the second round of the women's event, double champion Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia overcame Stephanie Foretz Gacon of France 6-3 3-6 6-4 and Romania's Irina Begu stunned Britain's Heather Watson 6-2 6-4.
Hantuchova will next face Australian Open champion and top seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus while Begu takes on fourth-seeded German Angelique Kerber.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Patrick Johnston)