Rafael Nadal is through to the third round despite a performance that had his beaten opponent claiming the Spaniard is below his best.
The six-time Grand Slam event winner was happy to face a challenge in the U.S. Open’s second round before ousting Germany’s Nicolas Kiefer 6—0, 3—6, 6—3, 6—4.
Nadal’s win meant this is the first Grand Slam tournament in the 41-year Open era with all the top 16 men safely entering the third round. In that third round, Nadal will meet compatriot Nicolas Almagro.
Perhaps rusty after a long layoff, perhaps still dealing with pain even if he says he’s OK, the No. 3-seeded Nadal struggled at times on Friday.
“Was a very good practice for me, no?” Nadal said, calling the match “a very good test.”
Things did not come easily for Nadal, who is trying to complete a career Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Open for the first time.
“He was getting a little bit tired. I could see it, I could feel it. He didn’t move so good,” Kiefer said. “But at the end of the day, it doesn’t count if you play good or bad. A win is a win, a loss is a loss.”
Nadal was sidelined since his May 31 loss at the French Open—ending his 31-match winning streak at Roland Garros—before returning to the tour in August. He skipped Wimbledon, declining to defend his title there because of tendinitis in his knees.
While Nadal proclaimed himself fit for Flushing Meadows, Kiefer did not feel as though he was facing the same Spaniard he had lost to four times previously. Not only has Kiefer never beaten Nadal, but the German entered Friday having lost all 10 sets they had played.
“Today was the first time where I was really thinking that I can beat him,” Kiefer said.
Nadal did play cleanly, making only 22 unforced errors, 38 fewer than Kiefer. But after a strong first set, Nadal allowed his level of play to drop in the second.
A key game came with Nadal ahead 4-3 in the third set, and Kiefer serving. “You never know what’s going to happen if it’s 4—4, 5—5,” Kiefer said. “For sure, he was also showing some nerves.” But Nadal seized control by breaking Kiefer in the next game-a marathon 12 minute affair. When Kiefer slapped a ball in the net to make it 5-3, Nadal punched the air three times and screamed, “Vamos!”
Nadal then held at love, making him 20-1 on his service points in the third set. Nadal, displaying his customary tenacity, then closed out the match in the next set.