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Nadal narrowly avoids ‘worst loss of career’ against Aussie wildcard as Venus bows out of US Open

Australian wildcard Rinky Hijikata has threatened the grand slam upset of the year before falling to Rafael Nadal in a daring and dazzling US Open debut.

Hijikata lit up Arthur Ashe Stadium with some electrifying tennis, snatching the opening set, before Nadal pulled out all stops in a pulsating 4-6 6-2 6-3 6-3 comeback victory on Tuesday night.

The reigning Australian and French Open champion had lost his only match since, to Borna Coric in Cincinnati in three sets two weeks ago.

Now unbeaten in 19 grand slam outings in 2022, Nadal entered the tournament under a fitness cloud after withdrawing from his scheduled Wimbledon semi-final with Nick Kyrgios with an abdominal tear.

The 22-times grand slam champion again looked vulnerable after Hijikata – ranked No.198 in the world and only in the draw after being handed a wildcard under Tennis Australia’s reciprocal arrangement with the USTA – captured the first set with some inspired first-strike, attacking tennis.

New Yorkers are famous for loving an underdog and the 22-year-old duly whipped the centre-court crowd into a frenzy when he clubbed an airborne forehand winner down the line to bring up set point, then fist-pumped and waved his arms in triumph after sealing the set with a huge ace down the middle.

It was the first time in Nadal’s record-breaking career that he’d lost his opening set at a US Open.

Alas, Australia’s grand slam rookie quickly learned not to prematurely celebrate against arguably the most ferocious competitor men’s tennis has ever seen.

After hitting back swiftly to take the second and third sets, Nadal resisted a fierce fightback from Hijikata in the fourth to eventually clinch victory, to great relief, on his fifth match point after three hours and eight minutes of enthralling action.

Rafael Nadal (R) shakes hands with Rinky Hijikata (L) . (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The two combatants received a standing ovation after the classic encounter, with Nadal conceding he was thrilled to have survived the scare in his first match at the US Open since winning the title for a fourth time in 2019.

Had Nadal lost, it would have been, statistically, the worst defeat of the mighty Spaniard’s 1277-match career.

“Three hours, eight minutes against a tough opponent – it’s a moment to survive, stay positive and just accept it’s how it’s happening,” Nadal said.

“I stay positive, stay with the right attitude tomorrow, one more day to practice tomorrow and then it’s another opportunity. I’m just enjoying the fact I’m here and here to try my best every day.”

Venus gone but no word on retirement

Defending champion Emma Raducanu, Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina and seven-time grand slam winner Venus Williams have all crashed out of the US Open women’s field in the first round.

She became only the third woman to lose her opening match in New York a year after winning the title – joining 2004 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber.

She was bothered by hand blisters but simply outplayed by 32-year-old Cornet, who had ended world No.1 Iga Swiatek’s 37-match winning streak at Wimbledon.

“Obviously really disappointing. Really sad to leave here. It’s probably my favourite tournament,” said Raducanu.

“But also, I mean, in a way, (I’m) happy, because it’s a clean slate. I’m going to drop down the rankings, climb my way back up.”

In other matches, Rybakina was upset 6-4 6-4 by French qualifier Clara Burel, who is ranked 131st in the world.

Rybakina was seeded only 25th, with her victory at Wimbledon not boosting her in the rankings because no points were awarded at the All England club this year after Russian and Belarusian players were barred from competing because of the war against Ukraine.

The welcome and support for Venus Williams at Arthur Ashe Stadium was not the same as they were for her sister, Serena, a night earlier. Nor was the result. She lost 6-1 7-6 (7-5) to unseeded Belgian Alison Van Uytvanck.

Venus, who turned 42 in June, has not made any pronouncements about her future in tennis, unlike her younger sibling, and while she has been successful and influential, too, the fanfare and attention are not the same.

Playing in front of thousands of empty blue seats, Venus bowed out in the first round of the US Open for the second consecutive appearance, losing in straight sets.

This was the 23rd trip to Flushing Meadows for Venus, who made it to the final in 1997 as a teen then won the trophy in 2000 and 2001, and her record 91st time participating in a major tournament.

She was off the tour in singles entirely from August 2021 until less than a month ago and is now 0-4 since her return. Her ranking – which 20 years ago was No.1 – is 1504 this week.

“It was definitely the longest time I have been away from tennis and been without a racquet in my hand,” she said. “So it was a completely new experience for me, trying to acclimate as quick as possible to be ready for the US Open, which was not easy.

“She’s a legend. She means so much to female tennis. Tennis, in general,” Belgian Van Uytvanck said.

Meanwhile, world No.1 Swiatek had no problems in progressing, swatting away Jasmine Paolini 6-3 6-0.

The Polish star is chasing a third slam title, and her second of the year after triumphing at the French Open in June.

Swiatek is likely to face a more difficult challenge in the next round when she runs into 2017 champion Sloane Stephens, who battled back to see off Belgium’s Greet Minnen 1-6 6-3 6-3.

Also through is American eighth seed Jessica Pegula, who beat Viktorija Golubic 6-2 6-2, and sixth-seeded Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka after her 6-1 6-3 win over Catherine Harrison.

Garbine Muguruza of Spain, seeded ninth, beat Clara Tauson 6-3 7-6 (7-5). Karolina Pliskova, the 2016 US Open runner-up and No.22 seed, needed a third-set tiebreaker to edge Magda Linette, but 16th seed Jelena Ostapenko was ousted by China’s Zheng Qinwen.

How the Aussies fared on US Open day 2

Men’s singles, first round

James Duckworth bt Chris O’Connell 4-6 7-6 (7-0) 6-2 6-3
Alexei Popyrin bt Tseng Chun-hsin (TPE) 6-3 7-6 (7-5) 7-6 (7-3)
Rinky Hijikata lost to 2-Rafael Nadal (ESP) 4-6 6-2 6-3 6-3
Jason Kubler v Mikael Ymer (SWE) 5-7 6-4 6-2 1-2 – match suspended

Women’s singles, first round

Jaimee Fourlis lost to Yue Yuan (CHN) 6-3 6-2


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