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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal subdued Aussie wild card Rinky Hijikata 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 in his US Open opener, improving to 20-0 in Grand Slam play in 2022.

Photo credit: Sarah Stier/Getty

NEW YORK—Muscle memory is a menacing force when Rafael Nadal is swinging freely.

Playing his first US Open match in three years, Nadal sputtered at the start.

More: Carlos Alcaraz Q&A

Then the second-seeded Spaniard struck with ferocity deconstructing wild Rinky Hijikata 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3, charging into the US Open second round for the 16th time in as many appearances.

On his fifth match point, a streaking Nadal slashed a superb running forehand down the line and flashed a wide grin sealing his spot in the second round with a burst of brilliance.

"Very happy, been a long wait for some time," Nadal told ESPN's Darren Cahill afterward. "I'm super happy. The night sessions here in New York are the best without a doubt so I can't thank you enough everyone...

"I didn't play a match for the last 50 days only one match so it's about being humble enough to accept the process and do the positive things day after day. It has been a three hour, eight minute against a tough opponent....Just stay positive and stay with the right attitude. I'm just enjoying the fact I'm here and going to try my best."

The 36-year-old Nadal raised his 2022 Grand Slam record to a perfect 20-0, including capturing the Australian Open and Roland Garros crowns and reaching the Wimbledon semifinals before suffering an abdominal injury that forced him to concede a walkover to Nick Kyrgios. This is the sixth season Nadal has won multiple majors.

A total 1,087 days since Nadal's last US Open match in the 2019 final. On that memorable night, Nadal out-dueled Daniil Medvedev, 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 in a ferocious US Open final fight that spanned four hours, 49 minutes and will go down as a match for the ages. Nadal called it "one of the most memorable nights of my career."

Tonight's victory vaults Nadal into a Thursday night showdown vs. familiar nemesis Fabio Fognini.

On Court No. 13, a resilient Fognini fought back from a two-set deficit defeating Aslan Karatsev 1-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4.

Nadal has won 13 of 17 matches against the theatrical Italian, but Fognini scored a historic win in their lone US Open meeting. Seven years ago, Fognini made history as the first man to fight back from a two-set deficit and defeat Nadal in a Grand Slam scoring a tremendous 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 triumph. It was Fognini's third win over Nadal in 2015 as he joined Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro as just the fourth man to beat Nadal three or more times in a single season.

  In his Grand Slam main-draw debut, the 21-year-old Aussie came out letting his shots fly with abandon, while Nadal looked a little bit unsettled searching for his timing through the first six games.

Taking the ball early, an energized Hijikata showed no fear facing the 22-time Grand Slam champion at the outset.

Streaking up to a drop shot, Hijikata shoveled the ball over, kept moving forward and snapped off a lunging volley to break at 30 for 4-3. An exhilarated Hijikata threw a leaping fist pump to punctuate the first break of the match and stir  the packed Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd into an extended roar.

Serving for the set, Hijikata hooked an ace out wide closing with an emphatic bang.

Resetting, Nadal was hitting with more vigor and venom. Nadal dropped back deeper to return second serve and gave himself a bit more time to decipher the wild card's serve. The Australian Open champion streaked through 12 of the first 15 points powering out to a 3-0 second-set lead.

Driving deep, clean crosscourt combinations, Nadal worked Hijikata's legs over in the second set, sometimes setting up the slashing strike down the line.

Nadal rapped a forehand winner down the line for 5-2. Eighty-eight minutes into the match, Nadal zapped a flat forehand down the line to snatch the second set. The second seed bounded off the blue court like a trampoline landing level at one set apiece.

At the conclusion of the second set, play was delayed about seven minutes as Nadal left the court to change clothes for a fresh plum-colored kit and the retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium was closed.

Nadal was belting shots that bounded off the back wall with a wrecking ball thud. Earning break points in the fourth game, Nadal broke for 3-1 when Hijikata hit his second double fault of the night. Nadal stamped a pair of love holds in sealing the third set.

Tennis Express

Credit the former all American from North Carolina to continue to grind. Hijikata had Nadal down 15-30 in the fourth game moved up quickly to a mid-court forehand but badly bungled the shot long. Nadal took that lifeline and ripped through a hold to level after four games. 

Bolting a flat forehand down the line, Nadal earned a triple break point in the fifth game. Locking in with an unerring baseline rally, Nadal drew a netted reply breaking with a shout for 3-2.

The man sporting the Aussie green-and-gold fired himself—and fans—up taking a triple break point lead in the eighth game. Nadal carved out a drop shot to save the second and dodged the third when Hijikata missed a drive down the line long. Drilling a running forehand down the line, Nadal withstood a near eight-minute hold for 5-3.

A double fault off the tape handed Nadal a second match point, but the tough-minded Aussie saved it. A gritty Hijikata fought off a fourth match point when Nadal netted a backhand.

Nadal saved his best for last. On his fifth match point, the king of clay clubbed a crackling running forehand down the line ending a three hour, seven-minute battle with a brilliant strike.


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