Rafa Nadal produced an epic fight back in the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday evening as he defeated Russian hotshot Karen Khachanov in a US Open thriller.
The world No.1 showed remarkable heart to not only down his opponent, but also battle through pain in his right knee, which required taping up after the first set, to win 5-7 7-5 7-6 (9-7) 7-6 (7-3) in a match lasting just under four-and-a-half hours.
Focus will no doubt intensify on his physical condition – and with four best-of-five set matches to come through in order to defend his title, there will surely be concerns in his camp.
It was a night of what ifs for Khachanov, who served for a two-set lead but the 22-year-old showed real heart and desire, as well as quality, to push the left-handed Spaniard all the way. Although, he was let down by double faults in crucial moments.
Nadal, a three-time winner in Flushing Meadows, will go on to meet Georgias Nikoloz Basilashvili in the last-16 – and despite his injury worries, it would be a major surprise if he wasnt part of the quarter-final line-up in New York.
In his first day session match of the tournament, Nadal came armed with a pink tank top but faced a real challenge early in the match.
Khachanov saved a couple of break points in his first service game but responded with a break of his own, attacking the Spaniards second serve to force an error on break point.
The Russian hadnt been broken during his first two matches – one of only two players to achieve that feat along with Frances Richard Gasquet – but, rather inevitably, found that record ended by the defending champion who levelled at 4-4.
Khachanov picked himself back up, though, and incredibly broke again. And despite the Spaniards best efforts in the final return game of the set, an ace wrapped it up for the 27th seed.
After falling behind, the Spanish No. 1 quickly called the trainer onto court to strap up his right knee. Its no secret that Nadals knees have troubled him for years – and indeed they caused him major problems in the back end of last season – and the sight of him struggling this early in a major perhaps could prove to be a hammer blow to him defending his title.
Sensing an opportunity, Khachanov turned up the heat. The 22-year-old broke to love before overcoming another tussle to hold for a 3-1 lead.
As was the case in the first, though, the 31-year-old struck back. A couple of ambitious – and perhaps naive – approach shots into Nadals forehand side from the Russian proved costly as the top seed punished him with two blistering winners, before an error from Khachanov levelled up the score to 4-4.
A horrific short court forehand miss by Nadal gifted the youngster the momentum again but Khachanov tightened up when trying to serve for a two-love lead. The Spaniard, inevitably took full advantage.
To make matters worse for the Russian, the rain began falling – meaning he was forced to sit and dwell on his failure to clinch the second set.
At 40-15 up and a point away from a breaker, it looked as if hed put those thoughts out of his mind, however he threw in two double faults out of nowhere and allowed Nadal to pinch the set.
Both had opportunities to break in the third but it all boiled down to a tiebreak. And what a breaker it was.
Full of drama, and errors galore, it was the world No. 1 who moved in front by winning a stunning 39-shot rally – though Khachanovs three double faults may well come back to haunt him.
After the disappointment of falling behind, Khachanov was broken at the start of the fourth – but he showed incredible fight again to break the 17-time Grand Slam champion when Nadal was serving for the match.
The Spaniard was forced to save a set point at 5-6 on his own serve but forced another breaker and eventually wrapped up the win.