NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal opened defense of his U.S. Open title with a tougher-than-expected win Tuesday night, 6-3, 7-6 (7-1), 7-5 over 98th-ranked Andrey Golubev.
In the late match, Serena Williams began with a 6-1, 6-1 win over Bojana Jovanovski.
Coming off two disappointing results in the leadup to Flushing Meadows, Nadal, seeded second, staved off seven set points in the second set and needed to rally from two breaks down in the third. Nadal, who was broken twice in the first six matches en route to the title last year, was broken six times in his first match this year. "Well," he conceded, "I was a little bit lucky to win (Tuesday) in straight sets."
His next match is against Nicolas Mahut, who lost a 70-68 fifth set to John Isner at Wimbledon last year.
Williams played her first singles match at Flushing Meadows since her ugly exit in the 2009 semifinals, when she was disqualified for a profanity-laced, racket-brandishing tirade at a line judge after a foot-fault call. Williams, who missed last year's tournament with a foot injury, was greeted warmly by the crowd Tuesday.
Nadal expended a lot more energy in his match than Novak Djokovic, who overtook him at No. 1 in the rankings last month. Playing his first match since Aug. 21, when he quit because of a sore and tired right shoulder, the top-seeded Djokovic built a 6-0, 5-1 lead before qualifier Conor Niland stopped after 44 minutes, suffering from food poisoning.
Djokovic began with a 121 mph service winner. Four points later, he closed that game with a 120 mph ace. He whipped forehands where he wanted them and returned well.
"Great opening performance," Djokovic said. "(Tuesday) I didn't feel any pain. I served well, and I played well, so I have no concern."
He improved to 58-2 with nine 2011 titles, including Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
Other men's winners included No. 11 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tampa resident James Blake. Tsonga's next opponent is Sergei Bubka, son of the pole-vault world record-holder of the same name, who is a qualifier ranked 207th and won his first Grand Slam match Tuesday.
Back on the women's side, French Open champion Li Na lost in the first round for the second straight year, 6-2, 7-5 to 53rd-ranked Simona Halep, and top seed Caroline Wozniacki defeated Nuria Llagostera Vives 6-3, 6-1.
Since becoming China's first major singles champion in June, Li is 5-6, including exiting in the second round at Wimbledon.
"Always easy to say, 'I want to do, I would like to do,' but always lose early," Li said. "Now I even lose all the confidence on the court. I was feeling, 'Oh, tennis just too tough for me.' "
Wozniacki — No. 1 for most of the past year but lacking a Grand Slam trophy — has a new coach but refused to say who it is. "If he wants to be in the background and not have his name out, I have to respect that," she said.