Rafael Nadal always played every point like it was the last of his career, digging and fighting relentlessly until the lights went out. His chronic foot problems and recent abdominal tear now mean that any point could really be the last of his career if his worn-out body doesn’t allow him to continue.
Nadal, 36, won the Australian Open this year and went on to win the coveted French Open for the 14th time, giving him a men’s record 22 Grand Slam singles titles. A rare calendar-year Grand Slam looked possible when he reached the Wimbledon semifinals, but an abdominal injury forced him to retire. He was delayed, curtailing his preparation for the US Open.
Still feeling discomfort, limited with his serve, Nadal came to New York with more hope than faith. “I’ve got everything I’ve got,” the four-time US Open champion said before the tournament, “and with the tools I have today, I hope I can be competitive enough to give myself a chance.”
Nadal needed to dig deep into his toolbox to subdue Australian wild card Rinki Hijikata, who was playing his first main draw match at a Grand Slam event. Nadal clinched it in his fifth match, driving a hard forehand down the line to secure a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 victory under the closed roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it didn’t need to be. He just had to be sure his body would allow him to play every point as if it were his last.
“Somehow, [this] it was not the day to play perfectly. [It was] a day to get the job done, and that’s what I did,” said Nadal, the No. 2 seed. “I’m happy about it”.
He was grateful for the fight after a layoff. “You have to be humble enough to go through this process and accept that you have to fight and you have to accept that you’re going to suffer,” he said. “That’s what I did today.”
Sloane Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion, was also in action on Tuesday, battling to a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 win over Greet Minnen. But other notable Slam singles champions made early exits.
Two-time US Open champion Naomi Osaka, not saved here after missing time due to injury as well as depression and anxiety, overcame No. 19 Danielle Collins, 7-6 (5), 6-3, in a quality match where it should be. it was final. Seven-time Slam singles champion Venus Williams, 42, had the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd behind her but Belgium’s Alison Van Uytvanck was too much for her in a 6-1, 7-6 (5) victory.
It was hard to see the once-dominant Williams, who made his debut here in 1997 and won the title here twice, unable to cover the field. But unlike her sister Serena, she hasn’t mentioned retirement. The Compton-raised sisters plan to play doubles this week. “I just love being here, I love playing here, the excitement of getting here and the lead is just — it never gets old. It’s so sweet,” Aphrodite said.
Britain’s Emma Raducanu, who has struggled since winning the US Open a year ago, fell to Alize Cornet 6-3, 6-3. Her disappointment was mixed with relief. “In a way, the target will be slightly off my back. I just have another chance to get back there,” he said. Also, 2020 Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin, who lost to Germany’s Julie Niemeyer 7-6 (3), 6-4.
Two potential roadblocks for Nadal at Flushing Meadows disappeared when Roger Federer (20 Slam singles titles) skipped the Open to recover from knee surgery and Novak Djokovic (21 Slam singles titles) was banned from entering the United States as non-citizen. get vaccinated against COVID. Two other hurdles disappeared on Monday when No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas was ousted by Daniel Elahi Galan of Colombia 6-0, 6-1, 3-6, 7-5 and No. 10 Taylor Fritz of Rancho Palos Verdes fell to qualifier Brandon Holt. , son of Tracy Austin.
But No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain advanced on Tuesday, as did No. 9 Andrei Rublev and No. 11 Jannik Sinner. Sixteen-year-old Learner Tien of Irvine pushed No. 32 Miomir Kecmanovic and had a break point midway through the third set, but the Serb pulled away to win 3-6, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3.
“I was a little nervous, but I remembered that I had nothing to lose in this match, playing an older and more experienced player,” said Tien, who is considering college and will compete in the Junior US Open later this week. . “Just go out there and play freely and take my chances.”
No American man has won a Slam singles event since Andy Roddick won the US Open in 2003. Fritz looked to have a shot until he was derailed by Holt. At least he has time on his side at 24. Sam Querrey, who reached No. 11 in 2018, withdrew from the singles competition after losing in the first round to Ilya Ivashka on Tuesday. Steve Johnson, 32, the NCAA singles and team champion at USC, lost his first-round match in straight sets to No. 17 Grigor Dimitrov. Jack Sock retired due to injury in the fourth set of his match against Diego Schwarzman. Hope remains for San Diego’s Brandon Nakashima, Sebastian Korda, Tommy Paul, John Isner, Frances Tiafoe and Jenson Brooksby.
At the rate the American men are going, they will continue to chase that next Slam title by the time Tien is ready to play against the big boys. “I think it would be really cool to be the one to break the drought,” Tien said, “but I still feel like I’m a little far from it.”
Nadal, competing in New York for the first time since 2019, will face Italy’s Fabio Fognini on Thursday. Nadal has a 13-4 advantage in head-to-head matches, but that is almost secondary to him. “I enjoy being here,” he said.
Everyone else will enjoy it too as long as their bodies allow it.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.