New York, Aug 31 : Rafael Nadal's first match as defending U.S. Open champion was hardly a tour de force, with the Spaniard lucky to record a victory over the relatively lowly-ranked Andrey Golubev on Tuesday.
Nadal dropped serve six times, an extraordinary figure given he was only broken five times across seven matches en route to winning the 2010 title at Flushing Meadows. His shots didn't have their normal depth and he needed to save seven set points during the second set before coming through 6-3, 7-6 (1), 7-5.
“I was a little bit lucky to win today in straight sets,” Nadal said.
Still, he progressed to the second round and a clash with Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, who recovered from two sets down to beat Robert Farah.
Nadal certainly expended more energy than Novak Djokovic, who overtook the Spaniard at No. 1 in the rankings last month.
Playing his first match in nine days as he rested a sore right shoulder, the top-seeded Djokovic began setting aside any questions about his fitness for Flushing Meadows, building a 6-0, 5-1 lead before qualifier Conor Niland of Ireland stopped after 44 minutes due to the effects of food poisoning.
“Great opening performance,” Djokovic declared. “Today I didn't feel any pain. I served well, and I played well, so I have no concern.”
The 24-year-old Serb improved to 58-2 with nine titles in 2011, including at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. Djokovic is on his way to compiling one of the greatest seasons in tennis history, particularly if he can earn his first championship at the U.S. Open, where in the past four years he's lost twice in the final and twice in the semifinals.
“This year has been tremendous—best so far in my career—and there has been a lot of talk about history-making and this incredible run,” said Djokovic, who lost to Nadal in last year's U.S. Open final but is 5-0 against him this season.
The Serb's second-round opponent will be Argentine Carlos Berlocq, who won in straight sets against Pere Riba.
Nadal didn't enter the year's last Grand Slam tournament under the best of circumstances. After losing to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final, Nadal lost his first match in Montreal, then bowed out in the quarterfinals at Cincinnati, where he also burned two right fingers on a hot ceramic plate in a restaurant.
Against Golubev, who has a 3-13 career record in Grand Slam matches, Nadal trailed 3-2 in the first set, and 5-2 in each of the others. There was one especially important point: At 5-5 in the second set, Golubev hit a terrific drop shot, forcing Nadal to sprint from behind the baseline, just managing to lift the ball over the net; Golubev miscued an overhead to lose the point. Golubev thought the ball bounced twice before Nadal got his racket on it, and argued at length with the chair umpire, but TV replays showed Nadal got there in time.
That gave Nadal a break point, which he converted to lead 6-5. He got broken yet again, but then reeled off the last six points of the tiebreaker.
Golubev served for the second set at 5-3, and for the third set at 5-2 and 5-4. Nadal broke each time.
“If you don't think about the points, it was not bad performance,” Golubev said. “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.”
Nadal's Spanish compatriot David Ferrer, seeded fifth, also had to work hard to beat Igor Andreev of Russia, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0, 6-4. Ferrer will next met American James Blake, who got past Jesse Huta Galung in four sets.
Russia's Mikhail Youzhny and Croatia's Ivan Dodig were the seeded casualties Tuesday. Youzhny was beaten 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 by Latvia's Ernests Gulbis, while Dodig came out on the wrong end of a topsy-turvy match against Russia's Nikolay Davydenko, who prevailed 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-0, 2-6, 6-2.
In the women's draw, top seed Caroline Wozniacki had a comfortable 6-3, 6-1 win over Spain's Nuria Llagostera-Vives and will next take on Arantxa Rus, who was a straight sets winner over Elena Vesnina.
Belarussian Viktoria Azarenka, seeded fourth, was a 6-1, 6-3 winner over Sweden's Johanna Larsson and her second-round opponent will be Argentine Gisela Dulko, who won in straight sets against Canada's Rebecca Marino.
French Open champion Li Na was the shock elimination of the day, beaten 6-2, 7-5 by Romania's Simona Halep, whos reward was a second-round meeting with Spain's Carla Suarez-Navarro.
“Terrible feeling,” Li said. “I really want to do well after Roland Garros. But it's not easy to do. Always easy to say, ‘I want to do, I would like to do,' but always lose early. Now I even lose all the confidence on the court. I was feeling, ‘Oh, tennis just too tough for me.”'
It's the first time in 40 years that none of the women's champions at a season's first three Grand Slam tournaments reached the second round at the U.S. Open.
Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova lost her first-round match Monday, while Australian Open champion Kim Clijsters withdrew because of an abdominal muscle injury.
Daniela Hantuchova and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez were the other seeded casualties. Hantuchova was comfortably beaten 6-2, 6-3 by France's Pauline Parmentier, while Martinez Sanchez lost 6-3, 6-4 to German Mona Barthel.
Three-time former champion Serena Williams cruised to a 6-1, 6-1 win over Serbia's Bojana Jovanovski and will next face Michaella Krajicek. It wsa Williams first match since her 2009 tirade at a line judge.
Among the past major winners who advanced Tuesday were 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, who overcame 16 double-faults, including four in her last service game; 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic, whose blood pressure was checked by a trainer at the final changeover and said afterward she felt overwhelmed while thinking about the recent death of her grandfather; and two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. AP