It took time for Rafael Nadal to discover his rhythm on Tuesday evening at the US Open, but the four-time champion found it to advance to the second round.
The Spaniard rallied past #NextGenATP Australian Rinky Hijikata 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 at Flushing Meadows, where he is competing for the first time since he won the 2019 title. The second seed has won 19 of his past 20 matches at the season’s final Grand Slam, and he has triumphed in all 20 of his matches at major championships this year.
“It’s been a long wait. For some time I thought I may not be able to be back, so I am super happy. Night sessions are the best,” Nadal said. “I just have to be humble and accept the process, day after day in practices and matches and stay positive.”
Nadal will next face a tough challenge against Italian Fabio Fognini, who rallied from two sets down against the 22-time Slam champion in New York in 2015. Nadal leads the pair’s ATP Head2Head series 13-4.
Hijikata showed no fear of the stage or his opponent inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. The contender for a place at the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals came out firing, playing aggressively to keep Nadal from dominating the action.
The Australian hit 11 winners to just six unforced errors in the first set, unleashing roars to the New York crowd to celebrate some of his best shots. The 21-year-old had gained experience in a big match earlier this month in Los Cabos, where he made World No. 1 Daniil Medvedev work hard for a straight-sets victory.
But winning a set against a Nadal and claiming three are very different tasks, which is why Nadal has not lost his opening match at a major since the 2016 Australian Open. Nadal served well in the second set, landing 75 per cent of his first serves and winning 93 per cent of those points, which changed the momentum.
From there, the Spaniard was never in danger. Nadal broke early in the final three sets and never relinquished control from there.
This was just Nadal’s second match since Wimbledon, where he withdrew before the semi-finals due to an abdominal tear. The lefty lost his opening match at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati against eventual champion Borna Coric.
Nadal’s next opponent, Fognini, was also challenged. The Italian battled past Aslan Karatsev 1-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4 after three hours and 34 minutes.
Did You Know?
Nadal is in pole position to leave New York as the No. 1 player in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. Daniil Medvedev, Carlos Alcaraz and Casper Ruud all must reach at least the final to have a chance of preventing the Spaniard from capturing the top spot.