NEW YORK -- Rafael Nadal has now won 21 of his previous 22 matches here at the US Open, but heads into the second round, frankly, scuffling by his elite standards.
Nadal, the No. 8 seed, found himself outside the top three for the first time since 2004, when he was an unseeded 18-year-old. Which is a shamelessly cheap segue to his first-round opponent Monday night, an 18-year-old Croatian named Borna Coric, an ascendant star who is the highest-ranked player not to be seeded.
For a while in the fourth set, it looked like Rafa might fall victim to some cruel symmetry, but he found a way, winning a quality match 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
Rafa actually winked when he shook Coric's hand at the net.
The surprisingly sticky match ran 2 hours, 47 minutes and probably wasn't the best way to start a tournament that requires seven successful best-of-five matches of its winner.
"I started playing well, first set was a very high level," Nadal said in his on-court interview. "The conditions tonight [were] very humid. For me, I am sweating a lot. When [we have] those conditions, I suffer a little bit more."
At the advanced age of 29, Nadal seems to be increasingly feeling the effects of his physically demanding style of play. He has seemed a half-step slow at times and struggled on the major stage.
A quick review of Rafa's less-than-stellar Grand Slam season: He fell in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and French Open, to Tomas Berdych and Novak Djokovic, respectively, and was stunned in the second round of Wimbledon by journeyman Dustin Brown.
Nadal's 14th and most recent Grand Slam title came 15 months ago at the French Open. But if he doesn't take the title here his streak of winning at least one Grand Slam title every year for a decade will end.
Last year, a right wrist injury forced Nadal to miss his second US Open in three years. The last time he played here, in 2013, Rafa won the title. A left knee injury cost him an appearance in 2012, but before that he won in 2010 and followed that up with a trip to the finals, losing to Djokovic.
Nadal entered the prime-time match insecure in the knowledge that he had lost his only previous head-to-head match against the teenager, last October in Basel, Switzerland. That was the one that sent Rafa off to the hospital for a season-ending appendectomy. And to think that a year ago, Coric was ranked No. 204 in the world.
Argentine Diego Schwartzman is the second-round opponent, Fabio Fognini looms as a distinct possibility in the third and Milos Raonic in the fourth. Again, Djokovic looms as a potential quarterfinals opponent.
"Just very happy moment for me," Nadal said. "Last year for me was very hard. Just especially I miss it a lot. Very happy to be back and be through."