Rafael Nadal avoids US Open shock to world No 198 as he looks to make most of Djokovic ban

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Rafael Nadal had to fight back from a set down and wasted four match points in an exhausting win against world No 198 Rinky Hijikata in what was his first US Open match in three years. The Australian wildcard stunned the 22-time Grand Slam champion by winning the first set on his Slam debut and gave Nadal a much tougher time than many expected across a three-hour-long battle. But Hijikata ultimately lost 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 at Flushing Meadows, where Nadal is seeking a 23rd major in the absence of the banned Novak Djokovic.

Hijikata had only ever won one ATP Tour match before this and even that was courtesy of a mid-match retirement at the Los Cabos Open. The Australian nonetheless was labelled a player with “amazing potential” by Nadal in his pre-match interview in the tunnel and so it proved in New York.

The 21-year-old would’ve been forgiven for showing nerves on such a stage but served well on his first ever appearance at a major. In fact, against all the odds, the huge outsider was the player to break first.

Nadal had not played on Arthur Ashe Stadium since beating Daniil Medvedev in a thrilling five-set 2019 final and was out of sorts to begin with. He failed to find a response after going behind in the opening set and dropped it 6-4 to the underdog.

Hijikata let out a huge celebration after winning the opener with his second set point via an ace and the cameras cut to his emotional mother clapping delightedly in the crowd. Yet Nadal, in typical battling fashion, rediscovered his level in the second set and broke Hijikata immediately.

The Aussie lost some momentum and allowed more unforced errors to creep into his game with Nadal needing just 34 minutes to draw level. The Spaniard had only played once on the North American hard-court swing before this and was improving as he found more rhythm.

The 2022 Australian Open and French Open champion hit 12 winners in set three as he took the lead of the match for the first time. But he was still not at his absolute best, at least not consistently as he committed a string of errors throughout.

Hijikata had never played a best-of-five-sets match before but showed no signs of weariness at the start of set four as he pounced on some more poor unforced errors from Nadal to twice hold serve. He lapped up the crowd’s appreciation after one brilliant forehand winner.

After that, though, he wasted a chance to break Nadal’s serve once more. And the world No 3 clearly sensed this was his time to put his foot down as he broke and seized the momentum again. Nadal, however, almost gave his opponent a route back into the match while leading 4-3 in the fourth, saving three break points to hold. 

He let out a gigantic roar as he skipped around the hard-court after finally winning the game. Yet he was pushed hard in an epic final game that lasted over 15 minutes. He squandered four match points against Hijikata, who refused to give up, before finally converting the fifth with a supreme forehand down the line to wrap proceedings up after three hours and eight minutes.

Nadal will face Fabio Fognini in the second round after the Italian mounted a comeback from two sets down to beat Aslan Karatsev on Court 13. The ‘King of Clay’ is looking to restore a two-Slam lead over rival Novak Djokovic in New York.

The Serbian is not playing at the US Open having been banned from entering American due to being an unvaccinated foreign national. World No 6 Djokovic, who won Wimbledon in July, had been hoping for a medical exemption but did not get his wish having also missed the Australian Open earlier this year due to his opposition to getting a Covid jab.

Elsewhere on day two of the US Open, defending champion Emma Raducanu crashed out in round one as her title defence ended at the first hurdle. She lost 6-3, 6-3 to Alize Cornet on Louis Armstrong Stadium.

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