Rafael Nadal always counts every point as the last of his career, relentlessly digging and Fight until the lights go out. His chronic foot problems and a recent abdominal tear now mean that any time could truly be the last of his career if his tired body doesn’t allow him to keep going.
Nadal, 36, won the Australian Open this year before winning his beloved French Open for the 14th time, which gave him a men’s record 22 Grand Slam singles champion. When he reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon, he seemed likely to complete a rare Grand Slam in years, but an abdominal injury forced him out. It lingered, limiting his preparations for the U.S. Open.
Nadal, still feeling ill, with his serve restricted, came to New York with more hope. “I have what I have,” the four-time US Open champion said before the match. “With the tools I have today, I hope to be competitive enough to give myself a chance.”
Nadal needs to dig deep into his toolbox to overpower Australian wild card Rinky Hijikata, who is playing his first main event at a major. Nadal sealed victory on his fifth match point, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 with a ferocious forehand from under the closed roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium win.
It’s not a masterpiece, but he doesn’t need it. He just has to make sure his body allows him to hit every point as if it could be his last.
“In a way, [it’s] not a perfect day to play. [It’s] a day to get work done, and that’s what I do,” the No. 2 seed Nadal said. “Happy for it.”
He thanked the match play after the suspension. “You need to be humble enough to go through the process and accept that you need to fight, you need to accept that you’re going to suffer,” he said. “That’s what I did today.”
2017 U.S. Open champion Sloan Stephens also had to bounce back on Tuesday to go 1-6, 6-3, 6- 3 Defeat Greet Minnen. But other notable past Grand Slam singles champions pulled out early.
Two-time US Open champion Naomi Osaka was unseeded here after missing time due to injury and depression and anxiety, beating No. 19 Danielle Collins 7-6 (5) and 6-3 played a quality game that should have been the final. Seven-time Grand Slam singles champion Venus Williams, 42, championed her in the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, but Belgium’s Allison van Uy Alison Van Uytvanck defeated her 6-1, 7-6 (5).
The one-time ruler Williams, who debuted here in 1997 and won the title twice here, is hard to see without covering the pitch. But unlike her older sister Serena, she made no mention of retirement. The Compton-grown sisters plan to play doubles this week. “I just love being here, I love playing here, I love the excitement of being here, and the lead is just — it never gets old. It’s so sweet,” Venus said.
Britain’s Emma Raducanu, who has struggled since winning the US Open a year ago, lost 6-3, 6-3 to Aliz Kone T. Her disappointment was mixed with relief. “At some point, the target would be slightly off my back. I just had another chance to crawl back there,” she said. 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin also came back, losing 7-6 (3), 6-4 to Julie Niemeyer of Germany.
Nadal’s two potential hurdles at Flushing Meadows When Roger Federer (20 Grand Slam singles champion) skips the Open to recover from knee surgery, Novak Djokovic (21 Grand Slam singles champion) disappeared when he was banned from entering the U.S. as a non-citizen who wasn’t vaccinated against COVID. Two other hurdles disappeared on Monday when No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas was beaten by Colombian Daniel Elahi Galan 6-0, 6-1, 3-6, 7-5 and Taylor Fritz of No. 10 Rancho Palos Verdes to beat qualifier Brandon Holt, son of Tracy Austin.
But Spain’s No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz advanced on Tuesday, as did No. 9 Andrei Rublev and No. 11 Yannick Sinner. The 16-year-old Irving’s Thien pushed down No. 32 Miomir Kekmanovic and got a break point midway through the third set, but the Serb pulled away to make it 3-6, 6-1, 6 -3, 6-3 wins.
“I was a little nervous, but I remember that in that game I had nothing to lose, I played against an older and more experienced player,” is considering Tian said of college and will compete in the U.S. Junior Open later this week. “Just hang out and enjoy my chances.”
No American has won a Grand Slam singles since Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003 competition. Fritz seemed to give it a shot until he was cheated on by Holt; at least he still had time by his side at 24. No. 11 in 2018, Sam Querrey pulled out of the singles event after a first-round loss to Ilya Ivashka on Tuesday. Steve Johnson, 32, an NCAA singles champion and USC team champion, lost in straight sets to No. 17 Grigor Dimitrov in the first round. Jack Sock retired with an injury in the fourth set against Diego Schwartzman. Hope still exists for Brandon Nakashima, Sebastian Korda, Tommy Paul, John Isner, Frances Tiafoe and Jenson Brooksby in San Diego.
At the pace the American men are going, they’ll still be chasing the next Grand Slam title when Tian prepares to play the big man. “I think it’s really cool to be the one who breaks the drought,” Tien said, “but I still feel like I’m a long way from that.”
Nadal since 2019 Playing in New York for the first time, he will face Italy’s Fabio Fognini on Thursday. Nadal has a 13-4 advantage in head-to-head encounters, but that’s pretty much secondary to him. “I’m enjoying the fact that I’m here,” he said.
Others will enjoy it as long as his body allows it.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.