'Nervous' Nadal overcomes early setback to win first US Open match in three years

The 22-time major champion loses first set to wildcard Rinky Hijikata but responded in fine style

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Rafael Nadal admitted he battled a few nerves in his first match at the US Open since winning the title in 2019, but the Spanish second seed responded by defeating wildcard Rinky Hijikata 4-6 6-2 6-3 6-3 on Tuesday.

Playing in only his second match after pulling out of Wimbledon with an abdominal injury, the Spaniard had speculated whether he was ready to take on New York and seemed to confirm those fears as he struggled on the return in the first set.

Hijikata incredibly broke the 22-time major winner with a crisp overhead shot in the seventh game of his Grand Slam debut, bringing the crowd to a roar.

"I started not that bad the first couple of games, but then I had some opportunities that I was not able to make," Nadal, 36, said after the match. "I didn't play a good game with my serve. Then he had the break. Then I was a little bit nervous."

But Nadal soon found his momentum under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, as the second seed charged through the first three games of the second set, improving in virtually every respect as his Australian opponent's form deteriorated.

Nadal dropped just one of his first-serve points with few mistakes, as Hijikata racked up a dozen unforced errors and dropped his serve in the final game of the frame.

Thriving on familiar territory, the four-time US Open champion never faced a break in the third set and broke Hijikata to love in the fifth game of the final set before recovering from 0-40 in the eighth to hold his own serve.

Hijikata gave the rowdy New York crowd a final thrill as he defended four match points in the ninth game before succumbing to Nadal's vicious forehand winner, only weeks after recording his maiden Tour-level win in Los Cabos.

"First match here in New York after three years, night session, it's always exciting. Yeah, I went through this tough moment," said Nadal, who sent across nine aces in the match.

"Second match in 50 days more or less. In some way was not the day to play perfect. Is a day to just make the job done, and that's what I did."

The win extends Nadal's unbeaten streak in Grand Slam competition this year, after he won the Australian Open and Roland-Garros, with the world No 1 ranking on the line in New York.

Carlos Alcaraz embraces Sebastian Baez at the net after the Argentine was forced to retire from their US Open first round match. AP

"You need to be humble enough to go through this process and accept that you need to fight and you need to accept that you going to suffer," he said. "That's what I did today."

Also through to the second round are Spanish third seed Carlos Alcaraz, who was handed a walkover when leading by two sets after opponent Sebastian Baez retired injured, and Andrey Rublev with the Russian ninth seed needing to fight back from losing the third and fourth sets to defeat Serbia's Laslo Djere.

British pair Cameron Norrie and Dan Evans both advanced in straight sets, while Italian 11th seed Jannik Sinner came through a rollercoaster five-set clash to beat Germany's Daniel Altmaier 5-7, 6-2, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1.

Updated: August 31, 2022, 6:17 AM