New York – Spain's Rafael Nadal kicked off his attempt to defend his U.S. Open title with a hard-fought 6-3, 7-6 (7-1), 7-5 victory over big-hitting Kazakh Andrey Golubev, coming from behind in all three sets to secure the win.
Nadal, who has struggled with his game since a dispiriting loss in the Wimbledon final, was given no rhythm by an opponent that swung for the fences throughout Tuesday evening's two-hour, 49-minute first-round match and ended many of the points with either a spectacular winner or a wild error.
The world No. 2 did not play poorly but he lacked the strong serving he displayed in last year's run to the title and failed to capitalize on numerous break-point opportunities, converting just eight of 22 chances.
The Kazakh came out with a fearless, ultra-aggressive game plan, with frequent powerful blasts with both his forehand and backhand resulting in 41 winners but also 59 unforced errors.
Golubev struck first blood in the match, breaking Nadal's serve in the fifth game to take an early 3-2 lead. But the Spaniard responded with some of his trademark play - including some miraculous defense and outstanding counterpunching - to take the last four games of the set.
Golubev refused to go away, however, continuing to push the boundaries between aggressive and reckless in blasting his way to a 3-0 early second-set lead and later earning a chance to serve for that set at 5-3.
It was then that Nadal morphed into Houdini to save seven set points - five of them with Golubev serving at 5-3 - by capitalizing on the Kazakh's unforced errors and delivering one spectacular down-the-line forehand passing shot.
In a wild series of games, Nadal then saved two more set points when serving at 4-5 before going on to win that game. The Spaniard then broke serve to take a 6-5 lead before losing his own serve for the third time in the set.
The set finally came down to a tiebreaker, which Nadal won comfortably.
In the third set, Nadal got himself in yet another hole but was able to rally on that occasion from two breaks of serve down.
For the most part, the world No. 2 merely got the ball back and play and allowed Golubev to implode but the Spaniard did end the match in style with an outstanding down-the-line forehand passing shot.
"So happy for the victory," Nadal said in the post-match press conference. "I think I didn't play that bad. The mental part was positive tonight. The tennis for sure can improve."
Referring to the go-for-broke style of his opponent, the 25-year-old Spaniard added that "he was trying to do a winner in almost every shot."
"So it was difficult for me to find the rhythm ... I think I hit fantastic shots for moments, but I didn't hit six, seven, eight straight good shots."
Nadal will next face France's Nicolas Mahut, who rallied for a 3-6, 6-7 (4-7), 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 win Tuesday over Colombia's Robert Farah, in the second round.
Mahut won the only match between them - at the 2007 Queen's Club event in London.
The U.S. Open is the last of four Grand Slam tournaments on the tennis calendar.
Nadal made the final of two of the first three, defeating Switzerland's Roger Federer to win his sixth French Open in early June but then losing to Serbia's Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final in early July.
Since that loss to Djokovic, Nadal had two relatively early exits at U.S. Open tune-up events in Montreal and Cincinnati, Ohio.
Nadal defeated Djokovic in last year's U.S. Open final but has lost to him five times this year and has been knocked down to No. 2 in the rankings by the Serbian star.