Either way, his first match as defending U.S. Open champion had plenty of rough edges.
The second-seeded Nadal found himself in a tougher-than-expected tussle Tuesday night, needing 11 minutes short of three hours to finish off 98th-ranked Andrey Golubev of Kazakhstan, 6-3, 7-6 (1), 7-5.
“It’s normal to start the tournament like this with some nerves,” Nadal said. “And what happened today, he didn’t help because he played very fast all the time.”
Far less dramatic was Serena Williams’ return to Flushing Meadows. She defeated Bojana Jovanovski 6-1, 6-1 in a no-muss, no-fuss appearance at Arthur Ashe Stadium—her first singles match there since her profanity-laced outburst at a line judge after a foot-fault call in the 2009 semifinals.
“I feel fine,” she said when asked how she felt walking onto the court. “Even last time I played here, I went out with a bang. I came in with a bang tonight. So it’s all good.”
Even though she’s seeded 28th and coming into the tournament after a season full of injuries, Williams is looking more and more like a favorite every day.
Before she took the court Tuesday, reigning French Open champion Li Na of China fell in her first-round match. That, combined with Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova’s ouster on Monday and Aussie champion Kim Clijsters’ withdrawal with a stomach injury, makes this the first U.S. Open since 1971 that none of the year’s major champions reached the second round.
Does that make Williams a favorite?
“I don’t think that,” she said. “I’m just here to play. Everyone’s been playing all year. I’ve played, like, five tournaments this year. I don’t think that’s usually a favorite going into another Grand Slam.”
While the women’s draw is as open as ever, many believe Nadal has only two main challengers. There’s top-seeded Novak Djokovic, who is 5-0 against Nadal this year and was leading 6-0, 5-1 over Conor Niland on Tuesday when Niland retired with food poisoning. And there’s third-seeded Roger Federer, a five-time champion here, who won his first match easily Monday.
Nadal hardly breezed through his. He said he was happy to get through such a tough test, that no player wants to be in top form at the beginning. Still, the stats were hard to ignore.
He had to fight off seven set points in the second and needed to rally from two breaks down in the third.
He lost his serve six times. This for a player who lost serve a total of five times in his run to the championship in 2010. But Nadal said it’s his groundstrokes, not his serve, that will determine his fate over the next two weeks.
“The people forget a lot of things, but last year my first match was really bad,” he said of his 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4), 6-3 win over Teymuraz Gabashvili. “That’s the truth, even if I didn’t lose my serve. I played bad against a similar opponent as today. He played very fast.”
Indeed, Golubev went for everything and forced the action with Nadal. Golubev finished with 41 winners and 59 unforced errors compared to 18 and 16 for Nadal.
He moved Nadal around, kept him hitting from well behind the baseline and had more than his share of chances to capture momentum, a set, maybe even the match.
“If you don’t think about the points, it was not bad performance,” he said. “I mean, you have to win the points when you have to win. For example, like second set or third set when you serve for the set.”
But he didn’t, and Nadal moved on for a second-round match against Frenchman Nicolas Mahut—he of the famous 70-68 fifth set against John Isner at Wimbledon last year.
Isner, 21st-seeded Andy Roddick, fourth-seeded Andy Murray and 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro are among those who play first-round matches Wednesday, while Venus Williams and third-seeded Maria Sharapova will play their second rounds in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Other winners on the women’s side Tuesday included No. 4 Victoria Azarenka, No. 10 Andrea Petkovic, No. 11 Jelena Jankovic and three young Americans: Sloane Stephens, Coco Vandeweghe and Vania King.
Two seeded men lost: No. 16 Mikhail Youzhny was beaten by Ernests Gulbis of Latvia 6-2, 6-4, 6-4, and No. 32 Ivan Dodig was eliminated 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-0, 2-6, 6-2 by Nikolay Davydenko of Russia, who was a U.S. Open semifinalist in 2006 and 2007 and has slid from third in the rankings to 39th.
No. 5 David Ferrer and Americans James Blake and Donald Young were among the men who advanced.
As did Nadal—though nothing seemed easy on this day. He is regaining confidence after a summer in which he didn’t play much and lost early in his two U.S. Open tuneups.
“You have to find your confidence,” he said. “The confidence is spending hours on court, competing better, winning matches. Today was one of the matches.”