NEW YORK – Like an ageless rock star, Andre Agassi took the court for his 20th straight U.S. Open to roars that drowned out his introduction.
He gave his adoring fans one more memory Monday night in a match that was little more than a practice session, and he left, as always, blowing kisses in all directions.
No one, not even Agassi, knows if this will be his last U.S. Open, but if it is he started it out in fine fashion with a tidy 69-minute, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 romp over an overwhelmed and thoroughly outclassed Romanian, Razvan Sabau.
Cranking out 11 aces at up to 127 mph, drilling baseline winners at will, toying with drop shots and lobs, Agassi couldn’t have asked for a much easier start to the year’s last Grand Slam tournament.
“You can’t always hope for matches to go that uneventfully,” said Agassi, who won the Open in 1994 and ‘99, was runner-up three times and has never missed the tournament since his first one in 1986.
“That’s an amazing thing,” he told the crowd. “I’ve been through a lot of things in my life. A lot of things have taken me away from the lines of a tennis court. But it’s never taken me away from here. Twenty years here feels better than 19, so thank you.”
The love affair began anew for Agassi, and for the first time with a charismatic teen 16 years younger.
Rafael Nadal and the U.S. Open are made for each other. He is high-energy personified, a New York kind of guy – big, bold and muscular on court, impossible to ignore in his skintight, sleeveless, Big Apple red shirt and black toreador pants.
The king of clay, who captured the French Open two days after he turned 19 in June, showed in round one here that he can be just as dominating on hard courts.
Seeded second behind Roger Federer, Nadal unleashed fiery flashes reminiscent of a young Jimmy Connors amid a workmanlike 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 rout of hard-serving American wild card Bobby Reynolds on a hot, muggy opening day.
Nadal is a far more mature, exciting and efficient player than he was in his first two U.S. Open appearances the past two years, when he was sent packing in the second round each time. This has been a breakthrough year for him. He’s won not only his first major title but eight other tournaments, including the Montreal Masters on hard courts two weeks ago, with a three-set victory over Andre Agassi in the final.
“The last two years when I was coming here, I was playing very, very bad … but the worst moment in the year (was) when I come to the U.S. Open,” Nadal said. “I think now is a little bit different, no?”
Yes, it is very different.
It is very different, too, for Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. A year after she emerged from virtual obscurity to win the title, she sprayed shots wildly in a 6-3, 6-2 loss to fellow Russian Ekaterina Bychkova and became the first defending U.S. Open women’s champion to fall in the first round.
There was little surprise in Kuznetsova’s early ouster. She’s been struggling to find her rhythm all year and came into the Open with a mediocre 27-14 record and no titles.
“I’ve learned a lesson and it’s tough,” she said. “But the tough things make you grow stronger and make you learn. What do I do, kill myself? No.”
It’s rare for a defending champion to lose in the first round at any Grand Slam event, but it’s happened twice this year. Anastasia Myskina did it at the French Open in May. Only two other women suffered similarly in the Open era since 1968 – Steffi Graf at Wimbledon in 1994 and Jennifer Capriati at the Australian in 2003. Four men’s defending champion of majors have lost, and only one was at the U.S. Open – Patrick Rafter when he withdrew with a shoulder injury in the fifth set in 1999.
Women’s top seed Maria Sharapova got off to a smart start, dispatching Greece’s Eleni Daniilidou 6-1, 6-1.
Serena and Venus Williams, each of them two-time champions, won in straight sets, though the No. 8 Serena looked less convincingly like a contender than her 10th-seeded big sister. Slower and heavier than in the past, Serena fell behind 3-1 in the second set before bearing down to beat 16-year-old qualifier Yung-Jan Chan of Taiwan, 6-1, 6-3. Venus, trying to build on her Wimbledon triumph, breezed past Rika Fujiwara of Japan 6-3, 6-1.
The highest seeded men’s player to lose on the first day was No. 9 Gaston Gaudio, the 2004 French Open champion who was taken out by wild card Brian Baker of Nashville, Tenn., 7-6 (9), 6-2, 6-4.
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