NEW YORK (AP) – The love affair begins.

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 of the year’s final Grand Slam event Monday 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.

One point demonstrated Nadal’s talents and tenacity. He lunged to return a 123 mph serve by Reynolds, a former Vanderbilt All-American, leapt to catch up to two overheads and keep them in play, then sprinted in from beyond the baseline to pounce on Reynolds’ drop shot and pass him with a winner. The crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium roared as Nadal dropped dramatically to his knees and bounced to his feet, punching the air with a left-handed uppercut just as Connors once did.

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 U.S. Open defending 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 added. “But the tough things make you grow stronger and make you learn. What do I do, kill myself? No.

“I know how you feel when you don’t have any gas and you can’t go anymore. I think it’s something else,” she added. “I have to find out what that is. It just takes a while to learn it. It takes a while to play with pressure.”

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 Daniildou 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 No. 10-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.

Perhaps Serena should worry less about her jewelry than her conditioning. She flashed a $40,000 pair of platinum-and-diamond chandelier earrings on court, one of which fell off during the match.

“I didn’t put it on tight enough because I was rushing to go out,” she said. “I was hoping it wouldn’t fall, but I knew in the back of my mind it would and it did.”

The highest seeded player to lose on the first day among the men 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. The 20-year-old Baker, sidelined for three months earlier this year with a left wrist injury, came into the tournament ranked No. 197 after laboring mostly on the Challengers tour.

“I think I’ve always had it in me,” Baker said.

of the biggest victory of his career. “I just haven’t quite been able to put it together for a whole match. Ever since I was a little kid, you always dream about being top 10 in the world and winning a Grand Slam. I know that’s a long way away right now, but hopefully with a lot of hard work, getting a little bit better, maybe I can accomplish those things down the road.”


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