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Rafa fine with spotlight shining elsewhere

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

Rafael Nadal's bid to duck under the radar at this year's U.S. Open has been given a helping hand by a quirk in the scheduling.

The Spanish star is pleased to be somewhat out of the spotlight, expectations drastically lowered by doubts over his physical fitness.

Nadal surrendered his No. 1 ranking and French and Wimbledon titles after a debilitating knee problem forced him off the tour for 10 weeks.

With Roger Federer revitalized and Andy Murray putting together the best year of his life, Nadal is the third favorite, at best, for the Flushing Meadows title.

Such a situation would have been unthinkable a year ago: The 23-year-old was dominating the sport, having won two straight majors and the Olympic singles gold medal.

Back then it was he, and not Federer, who was the main man of tennis, before weariness got the better of him in New York and the Swiss master secured his only Slam of 2008.

Nadal is taking a quiet approach in New York and is happy that all the talk is about others. The scheduling that puts his first game Wednesday – just before Federer plays his second-round match – has also conspired to keep the buzz away from the man from Mallorca.

"I am happy if people are talking about other players," Nadal said. "Of course I come here wanting to win like I always do but it is a different situation this year.

"I have been away from tennis and my preparation has not been good. It is difficult when you come back on to the tour and you have to get back to your top level.

"I am preparing to do well but it is a different sense and a different feeling because of what has happened. I can't even think about winning the tournament at this point; it is too early to discuss this."

Nadal could hardly have been given a more difficult start to his U.S. Open, taking on France's Richard Gasquet on Wednesday afternoon.

Gasquet served a ban for a positive cocaine test earlier this year, which pushed him down the rankings and left him out of the U.S. Open's top 32 seeds.

However, Gasquet reached the Wimbledon semifinals two years ago and was once regarded as a potential Grand Slam champion. He does not have the temperament for greatness but can still produce spectacular play on occasion.

More importantly, he is capable of rallying with Nadal from the baseline and providing a stern test of Nadal's rehabilitated knees.

There is also an extra element to this contest: the friendship between the two men that was only strengthened by Gasquet's recent troubles.

Nadal publicly supported Gasquet, who said the positive sample he had given was prompted by kissing a girl in a nightclub.

"This is a new start for me," Gasquet said. "Two years of competition on the circuit is less draining than the three months of hell I've gone through.

"You have to be a sadomasochist to want to play him at any time, but I'm very motivated. Rafa supported me more than anyone in the last few months and if he ever needs me to help him, I will do what I can. I'll never forget what he's done for me. Now I just want to get out and play."

Nadal has won all six meetings they have had on tour, but Gasquet has often pushed him hard and he is taking no chances.

"I have a long road if I want to do something at this tournament," Nadal said. "But nothing else can happen without this match and I am focused on it, totally. I hope it can be the start of something good but I know there are factors working against me."