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Nadal returns, wins at U.S. Open
NEW YORK -- Everyone's been curious about the condition of Rafael Nadal's knees, so it made sense that his first Grand Slam opponent in three months would wonder as well.
Which might explain why Richard Gasquet tried a drop shot deep in the third set of his U.S. Open match against Nadal on Wednesday. Nadal made the long run necessary to get to the ball and flipped it back over the net, winning the point.
A moment later, as if conspiring with Nadal to show everyone how fit the six-time major champion truly is these days, Gasquet offered up another drop shot.
Nadal got to that one, too.
Starting a bid to win the only Grand Slam title missing from his resume, Nadal encountered no apparent trouble from his much-scrutinized legs in a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Gasquet at Flushing Meadows.
Gasquet, for one, was impressed.
"He can win the tournament," said Gasquet, a 2007 Wimbledon semifinalist and former top-10 player. "Day after day, he will improve his level. For sure, he can win."
Nadal's assessment: "I played well, no?"
Nadal didn't wear any tape near his knees Wednesday, something he's done in the past, much less the sort of bulky bandages Venus Williams showed up with near her left knee for a second-round match she won easily.
One could certainly make the case Nadal wasn't facing the toughest competition. Gasquet has been away from the tour, too, recently. He served a 2 1/2-month ban after testing positive for cocaine; Gasquet successfully appealed what would have been a far more severe punishment, saying the drug entered his system inadvertently when he kissed a woman at a nightclub.
Nadal's absence was far more run-of-the-mill. He hadn't played at a major tournament since May 31, when his 31-match French Open winning streak ended in the fourth round at Roland Garros. The Spaniard cited knee tendinitis in deciding not to defend his Wimbledon title, and the layoff was a big reason Nadal has dropped from No. 1 in the rankings to No. 3.
He ceded the top spot to Roger Federer, whose bid for a sixth consecutive U.S. Open championship -- and third Grand Slam title in a row this year -- progressed with a 6-3, 7-5, 7-5 victory over Simon Greul of Germany in front of a night-session record crowd of 24,206.
Next for Federer is a matchup against two-time major winner Lleyton Hewitt, who defeated Juan Ignacio Chela 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. Federer has won 13 matches in a row against Hewitt, including in the 2004 U.S. Open final.
Williams, the 2000-01 champion in New York, had wide patches of white tape above and below her left knee, which began bothering her when she struggled through a first-round win Monday. Like Nadal, Williams looked hale Wednesday, and she easily dispatched Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States 6-4, 6-2.
"She was moving like a cat," Mattek-Sands said.
Nadal never mentioned his knee issues publicly until after the French Open, but he said Wednesday the pain dated to April, when he won the Monte Carlo Masters. He also won the next week, and the week after that, but he now attributes that success to "being on a roll."
The recent time off means he has played a lot less than he's accustomed to by this time in the season, which is a benefit at the last Grand Slam event of the year. He's never been past the semifinals in New York.
"I am more fresh, yeah. Fresher than ever in this tournament. I don't know if this kind of fresh is good," he said. "No excuses about being very tired."
Still, Nadal finds it amusing that there has been so much discussion about his knees and his time away from the tour.
"Seems like I was two years outside of competition," he said. "It was two months."
Kim Clijsters was away for two years, having ended her retirement in August, and she continues to play as if she never left. Unseeded and unranked and playing at the U.S. Open for the first time since winning the 2005 title, the 26-year-old Belgian reached the third round by knocking off No. 14-seeded Marion
Bartoli 5-7, 6-1, 6-2.
Other seeded women sent home included No. 15 Samantha Stosur, a French Open semifinalist, who was beaten by Vania King of Long Beach, Calif., 7-5, 6-4; two-time major champion Amelie Mauresmo, who lost to Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada; No. 12 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 20 Anabel Medina Garrigues.
Two fixtures on the men's tour said goodbye to Grand Slam tennis with first-round exits: Marat Safin of Russia and Fabrice Santoro of France, who are retiring at the end of the season.
The 29-year-old Safin, the 2000 U.S. Open champion, lost to Jurgen Melzer of Austria 1-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4; the 36-year-old Santoro, appearing in his record 69th major tournament, was beaten by No. 24 Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
Safin won two Grand Slam titles and briefly was ranked No. 1. There are those -- including Melzer, after Wednesday's match -- who wonder aloud whether Safin's talent could have taken him to a half-dozen major championships or more.
One person who doesn't worry about that? Safin.
"I don't regret anything at all. Things that happened to me throughout the life, whatever I said, whatever I did -- it took me to where I am right now," Safin said. "So I think it was pretty nice ride."