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Nadal denies Aussie underdog in thriller

Rinky Hijikata feels he’s destined for more on tennis’s big stages after threatening 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.

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

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 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, with an outrageous forehand pass on his fifth match point after three hours and eight minutes of enthralling action.

“Pretty proud of the way I competed out there,” Hijikata said.

“I just wanted to represent myself and everyone back home. I gave it all I could. It wasn’t enough but I left it all out there.”

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.

Hijikata said while he hates to lose, the gallant defeat proved he belonged in the big leagues.

“I kind of thought that going that into the match,” he said.

“I wanted to win that match and I think I proved that I can push players like that and it’s just about beng able to maintain that level.

“It’s not easy. These guys make it look easy but it’s three hours of gruelling tennis.

“So I’ve got to maintain it for a longer period of time and that’s what I’ll go back and work on.”

While Hijikata bowed out, two fellow Australians advanced to the second round on day two while Jason Kubler was leading Swede Mikael Ymer two sets to one when rain forced the suspension of his match.

HOW THE AUSSIES FARED ON DAY TWO OF THE US OPEN:

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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