Federer dresses up his Open performance

Roger Federer had no difficulty at all last night, when he was dressed for a formal affair in his bid to become the first man since Bill Tilden (1920-25) to win four consecutive U.S. championships.

He strode out for his 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Paul Capdeville in black, head-to-toe: bandanna, wrist band, shirt, shorts, socks and shoes. The shorts even had satin stripes down the sides.

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Roger Federer, the man in black, serves to Paul Capdeville.

"A little bit of the tuxedo look," Federer said. "It's something special."

Meanwhile, his chief rival struggled.

Playing on a taped-up knee so painful he almost pulled out of the match, Rafael Nadal was hardly at his imposing best yesterday afternoon.

It was a struggle to sprint, and he scuffled against a foe who never has won a Grand Slam match. The three-time French Open winner hardly looked ready to flourish at Flushing Meadows, where his career mark is worse than at any other major.

To improve on that, Nadal will need to recover quickly and perform better than he did before eventually earning a 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 first-round victory over Australian wild-card entry Alun Jones, whose claim to fame is a bit part in the film "Wimbledon."

"I didn't run too much, no? I can't move too much," the No. 2-seeded Nadal said. "Difficult to play like this, especially here."

Federer now faces a much taller task. His third-round opponent is John Isner, the 6-foot-9 American who only a few months ago was playing college tennis for Georgia. With fans barking for their favorite Bulldog, Isner followed up his first-round upset of No. 26 Jarkko Nieminen by beating Rik de Voest of South Africa 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (4).

During an on-court interview, Isner was asked to look ahead to the matchup with Federer.

"Is he good?" Isner said with a knowing laugh.

Like Federer, other past U.S. Open champions in action yesterday won in straight sets: Venus and Serena Williams, top-seeded woman Justine Henin and Marat Safin.

Nadal would love to join that club, and he and Federer have been building quite a rivalry, combining to corral the last 10 Grand Slam titles and meeting in four of the past six major finals.

Nadal is 2-0 against Federer in title matches at Roland Garros in Paris. Federer is 2-0 against Nadal in title matches at the All England Club. So the tennis world has been looking forward to a tiebreaker on the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center's blue hard court.

But Nadal felt a "sharp pain" in his left knee Sunday, toward the end of a practice session. The next day, Nadal didn't practice at all and figured he would have to withdraw from the year's last Grand Slam tournament.

Nadal had an MRI exam that showed no significant damage, so he spent Monday and Tuesday getting treatment on the knee from a doctor and a trainer. That helped, but Nadal acknowledged he might not have been on court Wednesday were this any other tournament. He had never been beyond the U.S. Open's third round before reaching the quarterfinals last year.

Venus Williams wasn't bothered by the six double-faults or the 20 total unforced errors she had to overcome in a 6-4, 6-2 second-round victory over Ioana Raluca Olaru of Romaniain the afternoon.

"I missed a few shots that were easy, but ultimately, I mean, it's important to get to the next round. I always feel like my game will be there. I'm not stressed out on a few shots," said Williams, who won the 2000-01 Opens.

Her sister Serena, champion in 1999 and 2002, got to the third round by defeating Maria Elena Camerin of Italy 7-5, 6-2 at night.

Wimbledon champion Venus, seeded only 12th here, will next meet 21st-seed Alona Bondarenko and Serena, seeded eighth, faces Vera Zvonareva, the tournament's 27th-seeded woman. *