US Open 2022: Hijikata reflects on relentless Rafa, electric atmosphere
Australian wildcard Rinky Hijikata admits he feels both disappointed and proud after gallantly pushing world No.3 Rafael Nadal to four sets in his Grand Slam debut.
As far as Grand Slam main-draw debuts come, perhaps none have ever been bigger than what Rinky Hijikata experienced at the US Open.
The 21-year-old Aussie entered Arthur Ashe Stadium – the world’s biggest tennis stadium, in New York – to face Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest players to have ever played the game.
And while he hinted before the tournament at his excitement to face the legendary Spaniard, a little part of him found the stage slightly daunting – as you would imagine any debutant would.
“(Initially) I was pretty nervous, I think I whiffed about three backhand returns in that first game, which is not the best way to start the match,” Hijikata smiled.
“But I managed to put in a good service game and kind of get my teeth a little bit into the match, and once I did, then I think I was pretty comfortable out there.
“I’ve always said I love playing on the big courts, and there’s no better court to play on, really, than Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I loved every minute; the crowd was electric. It was crazy; it’s probably the loudest atmosphere I’ve ever played in by far. And it was a lot of fun.”
In front of approximately 20,000 fans, Hijikata rose to the occasion and snatched the first set from Nadal, a 22-time Grand Slam champion who this year won the Australian Open and Roland Garros titles.
But Nadal, as he so often does, raised his level in response, and to a place the Sydneysider could not match.
After a thoroughly entertaining three-hour-plus tussle, Nadal extended his unblemished Grand Slam win-loss record in 2022 to 20-0.
“It’s not easy. These guys make it look easy, but it’s three hours of pretty gruelling tennis,” Hijikata said, following his 4-6 6-2 6-3 6-3 first-round defeat.
“I’ve got to be able to maintain for a longer period of time and that’s what I’ll go back and work on.
“I’m pretty proud of the way I competed out there. I just wanted represent myself and everyone back home in Sydney and everyone (at my college), so I gave it all I could. It wasn’t enough, but I left it all out there.
“I kind of thought that (I belong) going into the match, and I really did believe I was not going to try to go out there to just put on a good show and make up the numbers. I wanted to push him and try and win that match.
“And I think I proved that I could push players like that, and it’s just about trying to maintain that level.”
Hijikata, in his first full season on tour, has nearly halved his ranking since January, recently cracking the top 200.
One of his more notable results came at the ATP tournament in Los Cabos earlier this month, where he qualified for the main draw and ultimately fell to world No.1 Daniil Medvedev in the second round.
“You watch these guys on TV, but I hadn’t really hit with any of them too much. I’d never played anyone that good. So I kind of went in not really knowing anything in that match,” Hijikata said of the Medvedev encounter.
“This time around I felt like I had a little bit better idea of what to expect, how I needed to go about it and as much as I could I tried to implement what I learned there into this match.
“(Nadal is) one of the best competitors in the world, not just in tennis, but any sport. He’s relentless … Any time he steps on the court he’s going to give 150 per cent, and even 50 per cent of him healthy is a very, very tough task.
“(At the net) he just said, ‘Well played and I wish you the best in your career’, which was really nice from someone like that, someone who I’ve been watching since I was a little kid.”
But that little kid has grown up into a competitive beast himself.
And while many youngsters may have departed the court thrilled with their ability simply to keep the match relatively tight, Hijikata did not share such sentiments.
“Obviously I’m disappointed. I don’t like losing. It doesn’t matter who I’m playing. Not even in tennis, it could be anything, I don’t like losing. I’m not going to say I’m over the moon with losing that match,” he said.
“But I am proud of the performance I put in, and how I competed out there.”
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