New York:Everyone's 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 US 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?"
One could certainly make the case he 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 dropped from No. 1 in the rankings to No. 3.
Nadal didn't wear any tape near his knees on Wednesday, something he's done in the past.
He never mentioned his knee issues publicly until after the French Open, but he said on Wednesday the pain dated to April, when he won the Monte Carlo Masters. He also won the next week, and the week after that, and he attributes that success to "being on a roll."
The recent time off means he has played a lot less than he's accustomed to by this time in the season, which is a benefit at the last Grand Slam event of the year. He's never been past the semifinals in New York.
"I am more fresh, yeah. Fresher than ever in this tournament. I don't know if this kind of fresh is good," he said. "No excuses about being very tired."
Still, Nadal finds it amusing that there has been so much discussion about his knees and his time away from the tour.
"Seems like I was two years away from the competition," he said. "It was two months."