Nadal hits fast track for return to form

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Rafael Nadal has been regularly criticised for his slow play but was in no mood to hang around at the US Open here yesterday. The 20-year-old Spaniard has been in indifferent form since Wimbledon and was a relieved man after beating Mark Philippoussis in straight sets.

Nadal won 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in just over two hours, but Philippoussis provided a decent test. The 29-year-old Australian, runner-up here eight years ago, was striking the ball well and serving with his usual power, but Nadal never looked back after making an excellent start. In the first set the world No 2 dropped only two points on his own serve, which has been one of the weaker parts of his game in the past.

The Spaniard enjoyed a phenomenal clay-court season, retaining his French Open title and extending his unbeaten run on terre battue to 60 matches. He then took his form on to grass and reached the Wimbledon final, losing to Roger Federer for the first time in their last six meetings.

Nadal has proved in the past that he has the game to succeed on hard courts, but defeats in the last month to Tomas Berdych and Juan Carlos Ferrero in Masters series tournaments at Toronto and Cincinnati might have sown seeds of doubt, particularly as he has failed to get past the third round in three previous visits to Flushing Meadows.

"I played badly in the last two tournaments," he said. "I improved a bit in Cincinnati, but not much. Today was certainly my best match in the last three weeks. I feel good. I'm happy with my match today."

The Spaniard has been practising hard over the last week but has already found time to visit Ground Zero, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed in a terrorist attack five years ago. "I come back every year and I always go there," he said.

Nadal and Federer have dominated the year so far and it will be no surprise if they meet again in the final here on Sunday week. Ivan Ljubicic, the No 3 seed, has already gone out and David Nalbandian, the No 4 seed, had to come back from two sets down to beat Germany's Michael Berrer, the world No 128, 4-6, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5, 6-2 in three and a half hours yesterday.

Federer himself made speedy progress, beating Taiwan's Yeu-Tzuoo Wang, the world No 109, 6-4, 6-1, 6-0. The world No 1's previous result was a straight-sets defeat to Andy Murray in Cincinnati, but he looked in fair shape as he began his attempt to become only the third man in the Open era, after Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe, to win the US Open title three years in succession.

Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, the winners here five and six years ago respectively, also won comfortably. Hewitt, who had been a doubtful starter because of a knee injury, beat Albert Montanes in straight sets, while Safin beat Robin Vik in four.

Safin has struggled to find his form following a knee injury that kept him off court for six months and is now ranked No 104 in the world. He is here on his own, having decided to take a break from working with Peter Lundgren, Federer's former coach.

The 26-year-old Russian showed he had lost none of his fire when he was asked whether Gabriel Markus, the coach of Nicolas Massu, might work with him, the two men having been seen on court together in Cincinnati earlier this month.

"I'm sick and tired of everybody asking me the same question," Safin said. "It's really getting on my nerves. I was in Cincinnati and I had nothing to do. I was alone in Cincinnati. Have you ever been there? Just go there and see how depressing that place is.

"He offered to play with me and then all of a sudden everybody starts to say I'm splitting up with Lundgren and going with Markus."