NEW YORK – Even Rafael Nadal felt compelled to applaud when his second-round opponent at the U.S. Open hit a spectacular, full-sprint winner and was left doing the splits at the net.
The shot put Denis Istomin within two points of tying the match at a set apiece. He couldn't manage to close the deal, though — a recurring theme for Nadal's game-but-outclassed foil in the No. 1-seeded Spaniard's 6-2, 7-6 (5), 7-5 victory Friday night.
Eight-time major champion Nadal is seeking to complete a career Grand Slam, and he reached the third round at Flushing Meadows for the sixth consecutive year. He's never been past the semifinals, where he lost in 2008 and 2009.
"I don't want to talk about (winning a title) here now," Nadal said, "because I am five matches away. Is a lot."
He served at up to 134 mph and saved 7 of 7 break points against Istomin, a rare example of an ATP player whose mother is his coach.
"I'm working on my serve all my life. Sometimes, (it) works well. Other times, not working that well," said Nadal, who has saved all eight break points he's faced in the tournament after recently changing the grip he uses on his racket. "A few days ago, I started to feel very well with my serve. First two matches, I've served very well. Didn't lose a serve, and that does good for the confidence."
Two of those break points Friday came when Nadal served while leading 3-2 in the second set. Four came at 1-all in the third set. And the last was at 4-all in the third set, constituting Istomin's final true stand.
He appeared to be on the way to making things more interesting earlier in the match.
The 39th-ranked Istomin took a 5-1 lead in the second-set tiebreaker with the shot of the evening: After playing some solid defense, he charged up from behind the baseline to get to a drop shot and, leaving a 10-foot skid mark in his wake on the blue court, slid into the splits while stretching for a backhand winner.
Istomin dropped his racket, pumped both fists and screamed, "Come on!" Some spectators reacted with a standing ovation, and Nadal saluted the effort, too.
"A great point," Nadal said.
That, though, was pretty much that for Istomin, who lost the next six points, the set — and any momentum he appeared to gain.
"I was a little bit lucky in the tiebreak of the second set," Nadal said. "That's the truth."
Istomin pushed a backhand wide on the next point, then Nadal hit a volley winner to cut it to 5-3. Istomin netted a forehand, and Nadal hit a forehand that clipped the net and landed in. Nadal went up 6-5, earning a set point, with a service winner at 134 mph, and Istomin sailed a backhand long on the next exchange, ending the tiebreaker.
During the break between the second and third sets, Istomin got his right thigh taped by a trainer.
Nadal went on to wrap up his 17th consecutive Grand Slam match victory, following titles at the French Open and Wimbledon. Still only 24 years old, he already has won five championships at Roland Garros, two at the All England Club and one at the Australian Open.
If he can add a U.S. Open trophy to his collection, he will become the seventh man with at least one title from each Grand Slam tournament.
Nadal is one of seven Spanish men who won matches Friday, giving the country a tournament-high nine representatives in the third round.