NEW YORK (AP) — For all of Rafael Nadal’s considerable talents with a racket in hand, the part of his game that’s most often been criticized – by himself and others – is his serve.
That is quickly changing.
Serving at up to 131 mph and saving the only break point he faced, Nadal began his bid to complete a career Grand Slam at this year’s U.S. Open by beating 93rd-ranked Teymuraz Gabashvili of Russia 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4), 6-3 in the first round Tuesday night.
“My serve worked well. Hopefully, I’ll continue like this,” Nadal said. “My serve is not my best shot, but I always try hard to keep improving. I know if I want to have chances to win here – not just this year, but any year – I need to serve really well.”
Asked if he’s been focusing on making his serve better this summer, Nadal replied with a smile: “All my life, I worked on my serve. Not this summer, no; all my life.”
In Tuesday’s match, there were zero breaks of serve until 3-all in the third set, and the No. 1-seeded Nadal broke there when Gabashvili put a forehand into the net. Nadal threw his head back and yelled, “Si!”
The 24-year-old Spaniard broke serve again to end the match, closing with a three-game run.
While it was a straight-set victory, it wasn’t necessarily easy for Nadal. He failed to convert any of his first seven break points, and had to weather 49 winners from the big-hitting Gabashvili, 19 more than Nadal produced.
“I had a difficult match,” Nadal acknowledged, “but I think I did play well.”
The match lasted nearly three hours and, because it began late after three lengthy contests preceded it in Arthur Ashe Stadium, they didn’t finish until 11:32 p.m.
The result extended Nadal’s Grand Slam winning streak to 15 matches, after his titles at the French Open in June and Wimbledon in July. He owns eight major championships, but has yet to make it past the semifinals at Flushing Meadows, losing at that stage each of the past two years.
Nadal hopes to become the seventh man in tennis history with at least one title from each of the four Grand Slam tournaments.
Gabashvili, meanwhile, has lost in the first round of the U.S. Open two consecutive years. His best showing at a major tournament came at Roland Garros this season, when he upset Andy Roddick on the way to the fourth round.
In the second round, Nadal will face 39th-ranked Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan, who beat Maximo Gonzalez of Argentina 7-5, 7-5, 6-1 earlier Tuesday.
Might Nadal hit serves even faster against Istomin than he did against Gabashvili?
“Wait,” Nadal said, grinning to make sure everyone knew he was kidding. “Wait for the next one. (I’m) going for 135.”
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