NEW YORK - 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 past champions Venus and Serena Williams, Justine Henin and Marat Safin advanced in straight sets, 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, he'll 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 against 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.'
No. 1 Roger 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 against 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.'
As for Nadal, he felt a 'sharp pain' in his left knee Sunday, toward the end of a practice session with Andy Murray in Arthur Ashe Stadium. The next day, Nadal didn't practice at all and figured he would have to withdraw from the year's last Grand Slam tournament - ruining a chance to meet No. 1 Roger Federer in a third consecutive major final.
Nadal had an MRI exam, though, that showed no significant damage, so he spent Monday and Tuesday getting treatment on the knee from a doctor with the Italian tennis federation known for laser treatments, Pier Francesco Parra, and a tour trainer. That helped, but he acknowledged he might not have been on court Wednesday were this any other tournament.
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 against 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.
'I want to be the last one standing with a plate over my head. That's my goal every time.'
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.
Federer and Nadal have been building quite a rivalry at the top of men's tennis, 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 on Roland Garros' red clay. Federer is 2-0 against Nadal in title matches on the All England Club's green grass. So the tennis world has been looking forward to a tiebreaker on the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center's blue hard court.
Their dominance of the sport has led others to despair a bit. Listen to two-time major winner Safin after his 7-5, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (7) victory against Canada's Frank Dancevic:
'I hope that I will have a chance to win another Grand Slam. It's tougher and tougher, but why not? There is a chance,' the 25th-seeded Russian said, smiling. 'If Federer will lose to somebody, somebody will withdraw, Nadal will have something happen to him - the door is open.'