Nadal shows rust early on, but cruises into high gear to beat Lajovic

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Rafael Nadal improved to 13-0 in the first round at the US Open. (AP)

NEW YORK—Rafael Nadal looked rusty in his opening set in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday.

Facing 85th-ranked Dušan Lajović in his US Open first-rounder, the top seed trailed 3-5 early and nearly went two breaks down. The Serb let the lead slip away but pushed him to a tiebreaker, which Nadal squeaked out 8-6. Had he dropped that, which he almost did, you get the feeling that a three-and-a-half-hour marathon would have been in store. 

But after escaping that minor scare—which lasted more than an hour—Nadal seemed to settle down and get comfortable, and it showed in the final score. The 15-time Grand Slam champion kicked it into high gear in the subsequent sets and moved into the second round with a routine 7-6 (6), 6-2, 6-2 win under the comfort of the roof. 

With the victory, the two-time US Open champion improved to 13-0 in the first round at this tournament. Avoiding a first-round upset also ensured that third-seeded Roger Federer will have to reach the semifinals to have a shot of supplanting Nadal atop the ATP rankings. 

Nadal, whose last title in Flushing came in 2013, has struggled by his standards in New York in recent years. Ever since that championship four years ago, the Spaniard has failed to get past the fourth round here. (He missed the US Open in 2014.) The 31-year-old’s recent hard-court play in Montreal and Cincinnati didn’t inspire much confidence, either.

But when Nadal has something to prove, which he does this fortnight, he tends to use the chip on his shoulder to his advantage. He could face Federer in the semifinals—they’ve never before played at Flushing Meadows—but he has his work cut out for him before that potential duel, which would surely tear the house down.

Nadal will play either 121st-ranked Taro Daniel or American wild card Tommy Paul in the second round. 

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