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Playing on a taped-up knee so painful he almost pulled out of the U.S. Open, Rafael Nadal was hardly at his imposing best Wednesday.
It was a struggle to sprint, and he scuffled against a foe who never has won a Grand Slam match, let alone a title. On a day when his rival, No. — Roger Federer, won easily, three-time French Open winner Nadal hardly looked ready to flourish at Flushing Meadows, where his career mark is worse than at any other major.
To improve on that, Nadal will need to recover quickly and perform better than he did before eventually earning a 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 first-round victory over Australian wild-card entry Alun Jones, whose claim to fame is a bit part in the film "Wimbledon."
"I didn't run too much, no? I can't move too much," the No. 2-seeded Nadal said. "Difficult to play like this, especially here."
Federer had no difficulty at all Wednesday night, when he was dressed for a formal affair as he bids to become the first man since the 1920s to claim four consecutive U.S. championships. He strode out for his 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Paul Capdeville in black, head-to-toe: bandanna, wrist band, shirt, shorts, socks and shoes. The shorts even had satin stripes down the sides.
"A little bit of the tuxedo look," Federer said. "It's something special."
The only real fight Capdeville put up was directed at the chair umpire, who wouldn't let him challenge a call at the end of the second set because the replay request came too late.
Now Federer faces a much taller task: His third-round opponent is John Isner, the 6-foot-9 American who only a few months ago was playing college tennis for Georgia. With fans barking for their favorite Bulldog, Isner followed up his first-round upset of No. 26 Jarkko Nieminen by beating Rik de Voest of South Africa 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (4).
Federer said he's only seen Isner play a few games and called him a "new kid on the block."
During an on-court interview, Isner was asked to look ahead to the matchup with Federer.
"Is he good?" Isner asked with a knowing laugh.
"I'm going to believe," Isner said later. "I'm not saying I'm going to win, but I'm going to believe. That's what I have to do."
Like Federer, other past U.S. Open champions in action won in straight sets: Venus and Serena Williams, Justine Henin and Marat Safin.
Nadal would love to join that club, and he and Federer have been building quite a rivalry, combining to corral the last 10 Grand Slam titles and meeting in four of the past six major finals.
Nadal is 2-0 against Federer in title matches at Roland Garros. Federer is 2-0 against Nadal in title matches at the All England Club. So the tennis world has been looking forward to a tiebreaker on the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center's blue hard court.
But Nadal felt a "sharp pain" in his left knee Sunday, toward the end of a practice session. The next day, Nadal didn't practice at all and figured he would have to withdraw from the year's last Grand Slam tournament.
Nadal had an MRI exam that showed no significant damage, so he spent Monday and Tuesday getting treatment on the knee from a doctor and a trainer. That helped, but Nadal acknowledged he might not have been on court Wednesday were this any other tournament.
He only has been beyond the U.S. Open's third round once, reaching the quarterfinals last year. And there were moments when it appeared he might be in real trouble against Jones.
The 123rd-ranked Jones had a minute of screen time in his cinematic debut, portraying a tennis player who lost to the protagonist in the quarterfinals at the All England Club. His character's name was Tom, and to this day the 27-year-old gets called that in locker rooms.
He hasn't exactly made a name for himself in tennis, entering the day with a 2-5 career record in tour-level matches. About 21/2 years ago, he dropped off the circuit entirely for 12 months, teaching at a local club in Canberra and digging holes for his father's construction company.
Yet on Wednesday, for the better part of two hours, Jones gave Nadal all he could handle.
Quite a thrill, even if, as Jones put it, "I don't think he was at 100 percent. Only heard the grunt a few times."
Indeed, the indefatigable Nadal said he took it a tad easy so as not to risk further damage to his left knee. He's been dealing with a right knee problem since the Wimbledon final and wore tape below that joint, too.
Nadal lost the match's first six points and fell behind 4-1 before winning the opening set. Jones claimed the second set.
Then, in the third set, Jones broke for a 4-3 lead. At the ensuing changeover, a trainer came out to apply more tape above Nadal's left knee. While the heavy favorite was getting patched up, perhaps the heavy underdog had just a little too much time to consider the situation.
Here he was, at the U.S. Open, in Arthur Ashe Stadium, leading Rafael Nadal.
"I thought," Jones recounted, "'If I get this set, I've got a good chance of winning.'"
And right then, Nadal broke him at love, beginning to take control.
The Williams sisters know all about dealing with injuries, and they also know a thing or two about winning major singles titles, 14 in all between them.
So Venus Williams wasn't bothered by the six double-faults or the 20 total unforced errors she had to overcome in a 6-4, 6-2 second-round victory over Ioana Raluca Olaru of Romania.
"I missed a few shots that were easy, but ultimately, I mean, it's important to get to the next round. I always feel like my game will be there. I'm not stressed out on a few shots," said Williams, who won the 2000-01 Opens.
Her sister, also a two-time title winner here, got to the third round by defeating Maria Elena Camerin of Italy 7-5, 6-2 at night. As she often does, Serena Williams glanced during changeovers at handwritten notes in a pink notebook; one page carried the header "U.S. Open."
"I'm still trying to get it to come together," the younger Williams said after taking eight of the last 10 games.
Bad knee gives Nadal fits at U.S. Open; Federer wins easily
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