Rafael Nadal was given a tough US Open workout as he started his campaign for a first title in New York with a confidence-building 7-6 (7/4), 7-6 (7/4), 6-3 win over Russian Teymuraz Gabashvili.
Though the Spanish top seed walked out a comfortable enough winner in the end, but he was made to huff and puff by an opponent who went for his shots at every opportunity, especially in the closely contested first two sets. Nadal had the advantage of playing under lights in the night session at the Arthur Ashe Centre Court, avoiding the stifling heat of the day that had players gasping and reaching for ice packs at the changeovers.
The same heat almost accounted for third seed Novak Djokovic, who needed to claw his way back from two sets to one and a break down before finally seeing off fellow Serb Viktor Troicki 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3 in three hours and 40 minutes of punishing tennis.
Among the seeded players to fall were the 16th seed Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis, who went down 6-3, 2-6, 1-6, 6-4, 7-5 to French veteran Arnaud Clement, and 24th seed Ernests Gulbis, who fell 6-2, 7-6 (7/1), 6-4 also fell to frenchman Jeremy Chardy. American 19th seed Mardy Fish almost joined them before he got the better of Jan Hajek of the Czech Republic 6-0, 3-6, 4-6, 6-0, 6-1 in a roller-coaster of a match while spanish powerhouse Fernando Verdasco was also taken to the limit before he ended the upset hopes of Italy's Fabio Fognini 1-6, 7-5, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3.
Nadal had to wait until the seventh game of the third set before he finally managed to break Gabashvili's serve, having needed two 7-4 tie-breaks to take the opening two sets. He then ran off the next two games to set up a second-round tie with Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan.
"No one match is easy and especially in the big tournaments," Nadal said. "The pressure is there against players who do not have much to lose and who play crazy, but I thought I played well. I served well. My concentration was good. The forehand is working well. The backhand is improving a lot and it just remains to have a bit more confidence, but that's the only thing. The basic things are really in the right way." "I hit some terrible shots on the break points, but I played well in the tie-breaks and that's important for the confidence."
Nadal is bidding in New York to become the seventh player in history to complete the career Grand Slam of Australian, French, Wimbledon and US Open titles.
If he does so, he would become, at 24, the youngest man in the history of the sport to achieve that fabled feat and the first to do so in New York since Rod Laver in 1962.