- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2009

NEW YORK | Everyone has been curious about the condition of Rafael Nadal’s knees, so it made sense that his first Grand Slam opponent in three months would wonder as well.

Which might explain why Richard Gasquet tried a drop shot deep in the third set of his U.S. Open match against Nadal on Wednesday. Nadal made the long run necessary to get to the ball and flipped it back over the net, winning the point.

A moment later, as if conspiring with Nadal to show everyone how fit the six-time major champion truly is these days, Gasquet offered up another drop shot.

Nadal got to that one, too.

Starting a bid to win the only Grand Slam title missing from his resume, Nadal encountered no apparent trouble from his much-scrutinized legs in a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Gasquet at Flushing Meadows.

Gasquet, for one, was impressed.

“He can win the tournament,” said Gasquet, a 2007 Wimbledon semifinalist and former top-10 player. “Day after day, he will improve his level. For sure, he can win.”

Nadal’s matter-of-fact assessment: “I played well, no?”

Nadal didn’t wear any tape near his knees, something he has done in the past, much less the sort of bulky bandages Venus Williams showed up with near her left knee for a second-round match she won easily.

Nadal wasn’t facing the toughest competition. Gasquet has been away from the tour, too, recently. He served a 2 1/2-month ban after testing positive for cocaine; Gasquet successfully appealed what would have been a far more severe punishment, saying the drug entered his system inadvertently when he kissed a woman at a nightclub.

Nadal’s absence was far more run-of-the-mill. He hadn’t played at a major tournament since May 31, when his 31-match French Open winning streak ended in the fourth round at Roland Garros. The Spaniard cited knee tendinitis in deciding not to defend his Wimbledon title, and the layoff was a big reason Nadal has dropped from No. 1 in the rankings to No. 3.

He ceded the top spot to Roger Federer, whose bid for a sixth straight U.S. Open championship - and third Grand Slam title in a row this year - progressed with a 6-3, 7-5, 7-5 victory over Simon Greul in front of a night-session record crowd of 24,206.

Next for Federer is a matchup against two-time major winner Lleyton Hewitt, who defeated Juan Ignacio Chela 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

Williams, the 2000-01 champion in New York, had wide patches of white tape above and below her left knee, which began bothering her when she struggled through a first-round win Monday. Like Nadal, Williams looked sound Wednesday, and she easily dispatched Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States 6-4, 6-2.

Her sister, Serena, was even more dominant, eliminating 51st-ranked Melinda Czink 6-1, 6-1 in 53 minutes.

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