Federer has had a remarkable year, winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon, but he experienced back soreness earlier this month in Montreal and may still be dealing with it in Queens.
Their first outings here showed that Nadal and Federer may have a few imperfections to correct to win their next four matches and meet in a semifinal. But if that happens, it would add a new chapter in the history of their compelling rivalry, and provide some dazzle to a tournament bereft of stars.
Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have withdrawn because of injuries, forcing the spotlight to intensify on the most compelling story line remaining.
Nadal and Federer, with 34 major titles between them, have played each another 37 times dating to 2004. A dozen of those have been in Grand Slam events, and eight were finals — the last of which ended with Federer’s win at the Australian Open in January.
Federer has won five United Open titles and Nadal two. But by a quirk of fate, they have never played each other at the tournament. Not in a final, a semifinal or even the first round.
“Sounds very good,” Nadal said before the tournament of a potential semifinal matchup with Federer, “but the real thing, I prefer to play against another player, an easier one if it’s possible.”
If they do meet, and if rain falls again, the roof would probably be closed, as it was Tuesday, creating more buzz around the buzz it creates. It was the first time that Federer played under the roof, which made its clamorous debut last year when Federer was absent with a knee injury.
Night matches at the United States Open have always been boisterous, but the roof amplifies the chatter and drone of fans talking through points. For Nadal, it was distracting.
“I understand it’s a show at the end of the day, and I enjoy that,” Nadal said. “I feel part of this, of course. But under the roof, we need to be a little bit more strict about the noise, in my opinion.”
Unlike Nadal, Federer embraced the noise and said he felt lucky to be able to play at all on Tuesday despite the rain.
“It’s great,” he said in an on-court interview after his match. “When you guys get going, it’s even a better atmosphere than what it usually is.”
Before the first ball was served at this year’s tournament, officials were busy trying to address the extra noise that caused disruption at Arthur Ashe Stadium last year after its new $150 million roof had been installed.
They neutralized sounds coming from two air-conditioning units and a cellphone tower, believed to be the source of much of the commotion, but one significant noisemaker remained: the crowd of fans cheering, drinking and talking through the action.
Nadal said he had trouble hearing the ball coming off his opponent’s racket, making it hard to anticipate how hard it was hit or what kind of spin it had. He said he also yelled across the net for Lajovic to wait before serving, but the Serb did not hear him.
“So, you can imagine how much noise you feel out there,” Nadal said. “So difficult to analyze how the ball is coming when you are not hearing very well the sound of the opponent’s ball.”
He did not use it as an excuse for nearly losing the first set, citing his own mistakes and Lajovic’s ability to hit sweeping one-handed backhands while on the run. Lajovic took a 5-3 lead in the set behind some of those striking shots while Nadal struggled, especially with his forehand.
But Nadal fought back in the critical moments, gradually finding pace and rhythm on his forehand to force a tiebreaker, and then setting up set point with a brilliant forehand. While backing up from the baseline, Nadal sizzled an inside-out shot across the court for a winner, and then won the set when Lajovic hit a backhand slice well long on the next point.
That elicited more noise from the crowd, but it was the kind that Nadal can appreciate, the kind that comes after play has stopped.
“The U.S.T.A. make an amazing improvement for the fans, for the players, for the TV, for everybody with the roof,” he said, “and now they can make it even a little bit better if they can control a little bit more that.”
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