NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal’s first match as defending U.S. Open champion was hardly a tour de force.
He would fall behind in a set, then come back. Fall behind, then come back.
His serve was broken six times; that happened a total of five times in seven matches during his 2010 run to the title at Flushing Meadows. His shots didn’t have their normal depth. He needed to save seven set points during the second set.
Locked in a struggle for nearly three hours, the second-seeded Nadal eventually got past 98th-ranked Andrey Golubev 6-3, 7-6 (1), 7-5 on Tuesday night to reach the second round of the U.S. Open.
“Well,” Nadal conceded, “I was a little bit lucky to win today in straight sets.”
That’s for sure. And Nadal expended a lot more energy than Novak Djokovic, who overtook the Spaniard at No. 1 in the rankings in July.
Indeed, it didn’t take too long to see that Djokovic’s right shoulder is feeling fine. He began his first-round match with a 121 mph service winner. Four points later, he closed that game with a 120 mph ace. He whipped forehands exactly where he wanted them. He returned well, too.
Playing his first match since Aug. 21, when he quit because of a sore and tired shoulder, the top-seeded Djokovic began setting aside any questions about his fitness for Flushing Meadows, building a 6-0, 5-1 lead before qualifier Conor Niland stopped after 44 minutes. Niland had food poisoning.
“Great opening performance,” Djokovic declared. “Today I didn’t feel any pain. I served well, and I played well, so I have no concern.”
The 24-year-old Serb improved to 58-2 with nine titles in 2011, including at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
The day saw another top seed on the women’s side fall. Since becoming China’s first major singles champion at Paris in June, Li Na has gone 5-6 after the sixth seed lost 6-2, 7-5 to 53rd-ranked Simona Halep.
It’s the first time in 40 years that none of the women’s champions at a season’s first three Grand Slam tournaments reached the second round at the U.S. Open. Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova lost her first-round match Monday, while Australian Open champion Kim Clijsters withdrew because of a stomach muscle injury.