Rafa Nadal has shown his respect for Aussie Rinky Hijikata after the World No.198 put in a valiant effort to push the Spaniard in the opening round of the US Open.
Nadal, returning to New York after a three-year hiatus, was initially stunned by the 21-year-old Australian after he dropped the first set in the humid conditions.
Hijikata broke an out-of-sorts Nadal in the seventh game to take a 4-3 lead, before holding on to claim the opening set in stunning scenes.
The 21-year-old roared with delight and threw his arms in the air on a number of occasions, with the centre court crowd in New York getting behind the massive Aussie underdog.
However, Nadal settled into his rhythm and lifted his game to take the next two sets on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Hijikata was still fighting away in the fourth and managed to save five match points against Nadal.
And to prove just how difficult it was to pass the Australian, it took a trademark Nadal forehand winner down the line to secure the opening round for the Spaniard.
The crowd were on their feet after a brilliant showing from both players as they approached the net.
And Nadal showed his appreciation towards Hijikata as they embraced and shared words.
Nadal also stood and applauded the Aussie, along with the crowd, as Hijikata exited Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The commentators pointed out that Nadal was showing his ‘respect’ for the 21-year-old after a gruelling first round clash.
After the match, Nadal admitted he was thrilled to be back at Flushing Meadows.
“Here I am, super happy,” Nadal said after the three-hour thriller.
“I didn’t play much in the last 50 days, it’s about being humble enough and accepting the process.”
Nadal paid his respect to Hijikata after the duel.
“Tough opponent. It’s a moment to stay positive,” he added during his on-court interview.
Rafa Nadal advances at US Open
Now unbeaten in 19 grand slam outings in 2022, Nadal entered the tournament under a fitness cloud after withdrawing from his scheduled Wimbledon semi-final with Nick Kyrgios with an abdominal tear.
The reigning Australian and French Open champion had lost his only match since, to Borna Coric in Cincinnati in three sets two weeks ago.
New Yorkers are famous for loving an underdog and the Aussie whipped the centre-court crowd into a frenzy when he clubbed an airborne forehand winner down the line to bring up set point, then fist-pumped and waved his arms in triumph after sealing the set with a huge ace down the middle.
It was the first time in Nadal’s record-breaking career that he’d lost his opening set at a US Open.
Had Nadal lost, it would have been, statistically, the worst defeat of the mighty Spaniard’s 1277-match career.
However, he now advances to take Fabio Fognini in the second round.