Then he was off, with great slashing strides, knocking off a ferocious winner that landed about four inches from the sideline and from the baseline. It was just a random point from the fifth game of the third set, but it -- and his emphatic 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 victory -- seemed to answer the question looming over this 2009 U.S. Open:
How are Rafa's knees?
Will they hold up over the fortnight and the seven matches required to win a Grand Slam? The early returns would suggest the answer is yes. Whether Nadal's head is wrapped completely around this never-before-accomplished task is another thing altogether.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Rafael Nadal didn't appear to have any trouble moving around the court versus Gasquet.
Does he think about his knees when he's on the court?
"I don't have pain, so I don't think," Nadal said. "I am very happy to be here another time, and I am enjoying much more right now practicing with better attitude than when I was playing in clay season with pain in the knees every day."
Nadal, you no doubt remember, was the latest, greatest player in the world after vanquishing the weeping Roger Federer early this year at the Australian Open. He was ranked No. 1 in the world and had won three of four major titles. The very real possibility (some would say probability) of a fifth consecutive win at Roland Garros would have distanced him from the pack of baying hounds -- including Federer.
But the very hinges that carried him to such heights betrayed him. Like the brake pads in a car, they wore down under the daily stress of life under careering Rafa. By the time he was bounced from the French Open by Robin Soderling -- in the fourth round -- the tendinitis left him moving, relatively speaking, like an old man.
So Federer stepped into the vacuum, winning his first Roland Garros title and, at Wimbledon, breaking Pete Sampras' record for Slams. Nadal didn't hit a tournament ball for more than two months. When he came back for the ATP Masters events, it was hard to get a fix on his physical condition, and he entered the Open with a new perspective, at No. 3 in the world.
Rafa lost to Juan Martin del Potro and Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the quarterfinals and semifinals in Montreal and Cincinnati, respectively. Wednesday's win over Gasquet was impressive, such as it was. Gasquet, of course, was even rustier than Nadal after his three-month drug suspension. He had tried to qualify in New Haven last month and failed.
Still, Nadal's control of the match was impressive; in six previous matches with the Frenchman, he never allowed fewer games per set. He won 33 of the 35 points when successfully landing his first serve. And he appeared to move easily, an observation confirmed by this statistic: Nadal won 19 of the 23 points in which he approached the net.
There was no sign of distress from a reported pulled stomach muscle. Gasquet was asked to assess Nadal's fitness: Was he 100 percent? Maybe 70 percent?
"You never know with him," Gasquet said. "He's one of the favorites of the tournament, like Federer, Murray or Djokovic.
"He can win the tournament. Day after day, he will improve his level; for sure he can win."
Not all the analysts have been as kind. Most place him last, at best, in that same pecking order that came from Gasquet and give him a small chance of winning based on the form of the other three.
There are two ways to look at this:
One, Nadal hasn't played enough matches and isn't in any condition to complete his career Grand Slam. Two, he was exhausted when he arrived here last year. He has never been more rested and is just lying in the weeds, trying to put a few matches together early and hope that major killer instinct takes over sometime next week.
"I am more fresh, yeah, fresher than [ever] in this tournament," he said, smiling. "I don't know if this kind of fresh is good."
Five things we learned on Day 3
1. Venus' left knee should hold up -- at least until the fourth round: She didn't move like a butterfly (or sting like a bee), but Venus Williams did survive Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-4, 6-2 to advance to the third round.
The celestial one came out with a clunky-looking bandage wrapped above and below the offending joint.
"It's hard when it's new because you're not used to the pain," Venus said of the injury that occurred in the first round. "After a while, you start to get used to it. You have to adjust, physically and mentally. So there is kind of a curve."
The end of that curve could come in the fourth round, if Venus survives her match against Magdalena Rybarikova. Kim Clijsters, who dropped a set in her first-round match with Marion Bartoli, might be waiting.
2. Nationalism is overrated: Juan Martin del Potro and Gael Monfils sent home fellow countrymen without the least bit of remorse. Del Potro hacked up Juan Monaco 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 in an all-Argentina affair, and Monfils made French toast of Jeremy Chardy.
"I'm sticking to the decision that I made at the end of last year: to really sit and see how the year went and make a decision at the end of this season," she said after losing 6-4, 6-0 to Aleksandra Wozniak. "I don't want to make the decision to stop and then after two, six, eight months [be] thinking, 'S---, it was not quite the time yet.'"
4. Say what you want, but Lleyton Hewitt can still bring it:
He's 28 now, and still trying to get past a nasty hip injury, but Hewitt still gets up for the big games. He torched Juan Ignacio Chela in straight sets and is into the third round for the (drumroll, please) ninth time.
Larcher De Brito's game, understandably, needs to get bigger. She had only two winners and won 44 percent of her service points.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
King for a day
When Vania King sang the national anthem at Dodger Stadium last month before 40,000 spectators, she was "really, really, really nervous."
On Wednesday, after the biggest win of her life, she said she gets more nervous playing tennis.
"If I sing badly," the 20-year-old Californian said, "I don't lose points or money,"
King, the No. 114-ranked player in the world, stunned No. 15 seed Samantha Stosur 7-5, 6-4 to reach the third round of a Grand Slam for the first time in her career.
"I didn't go in expecting to win," King said. "I really didn't feel comfortable all match long because she hits such a heavy ball. If I was passive, I knew she'd win."
Indeed, Stosur is one of the most physical players on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour; her first serves Wednesday averaged 17 mph faster (104).
"I tried not to look at the radar -- it was so depressing," King said.
Instead, she crowded the baseline and jumped on the second serves and managed to make a break of serve in each set stand up.
She served and volleyed on the final point, a grand flourish that underlined her aggressive posture.
In her first year as a professional, King won the 2006 title in Bangkok and saw her ranking rise to what turned out to be a career-high No. 50. But by the end of the 2008 season, she didn't feel like playing tennis anymore. Since she started working with coach Tarik Benhabiles, however, that sentiment has changed.
Several times, reporters tried to get King to say this was the most important win of her career. And several times, she declined, saying, "I've improved my tennis over the entire year."
Robby Ginepri, a familiar face, provided the signature American win on the men's side. Four years removed from his semifinals appearance here, he advanced quietly to the second round with a 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 victory over Andrei Pavel.
Flavia of the day
Sania Mirza is a more-than-credible professional. She was ranked No. 27 in the world at one point and has won a combined nine singles and doubles titles.
Against Flavia Pennetta on Wednesday, she didn't win anything. The incandescent Italian flogged Mirza 6-0, 6-0 to advance to the third round.
Mirza said she couldn't remember ever losing by that score -- even all the way back to the age of 6, when she began to play. Pennetta, she said, played an exceptional match and had an answer for everything.
"Suddenly," she said, "you're thinking, 'What do I do now?'"
According to Mirza, who is good friends with Pennetta, the world No. 10 has always had a solid backhand, but has improved her forehand appreciably and was "all over the place" in terms of movement.
Mirza told Pennetta in the locker room: "If you keep playing like that, you'll be No. 1 soon."
Tweets of the Day
Amer Delic: Mattek wearing tube socks and sneaks. Somewhere, a sixth grade gym teacher is smiling.
Jim Courier: Digging the way Sharapova's rocking the bandana ... keeping the ears pinned down for maximum aerodynamics. Brilliant move.
Amer Delic: People are realizing that patella tendinitis/tears are becoming an epidemic for tennis players. Hard courts can do that to you.
Elena Dementieva versus Melanie Oudin: The 17-year-old American looked smashing in her opening-round win but, coming in, Dementieva is the most in-form woman. The Russian smells that crazy third-round matchup with countrywoman Maria Sharapova.
ESPN.com prediction: Dementieva in two.