Rafael Nadal’s bid for an historic eighth French Open title was almost spectacularly derailed yesterday by big-hitting German Daniel Brands.
Defending champion Nadal dropped the opening set of a Grand Slam for the first time in his career before he prevailed 4-6, 7-6 (7/4), 6-4, 6-3 against a player who had lost all four of his previous matches in Paris.
The Spaniard, who before this year had only lost once in 53 matches at Roland Garros, came into the tournament having won six titles in eight finals since he returned from a seventh-month injury lay-off.
But the 26-year-old was caught cold by World No 59 Brands who unleashed a fearless barrage of attacks off both sides to leave the third seed reeling.
It was almost a carbon copy of the tactics employed by Robin Soderling, the only man to beat Nadal in Paris four years ago, and Lukas Rosol, who dumped the Spaniard out of Wimbledon last year.
Brands even led 3/0 in the second set tie-breaker as he appeared poised to deliver the first defeat of a men’s champion in the opening round in tournament history.
But Nadal eventually found his rhythm to steady the ship as the 25-year-old German eventually ran out of firepower.
“He was playing unbelievable. I tried to find my game and tried to resist his fantastic shots,” said Nadal, who will face Martin Klizan of Slovakia for a place in the last 32.
“He played a great match and put me in a tricky situation.”
Brands admitted that a missed simple volley in the second set tie-breaker which would have given him a 4/2 lead had been crucial.
“I played my best tennis today, but the tie-break was the turning point. After that I lost concentration and he was just better than me after the second set,” said the German.
Rolland Garros Round-up
A former World No 1 yet without a Grand Slam singles title to her name — and, moreover, one who arrived at Roland Garros on the back of opening round losses in her last four events. Yet Caroline Wozniacki shrugged off any talk of impending crisis as she breezed into the second round of the French Open with a 6-3, 6-2 swamping of British hope Laura Robson, who failed to live up to high hopes of possibly scalping the number 10 seed.
French sixth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who is looking to become the first home player to win the men’s title since Yannick Noah in 1983, also eased into the second round yesterday. He started confidently enough with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 win over Aljaz Bedene of Slovenia.
Chinese sixth seed Li Na, the 2011 champion, cruised into the French Open second round with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Anabel Medina Garrigues.
The 31-year-old Li, who will face Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States, for a place in the Last 32, had lost all three of her previous career meetings on clay against Garrigues.