Seven-time champion Rafael Nadal of Spain lost the first set but rallied to beat Daniel Brands of Germany in a French Open first-round match.
PARIS — Rafael Nadal knows this story well. All too well. The Spaniard saw it up close the previous time he played in a major tournament.
Early round, main stadium, virtually unknown opponent taking risky swings and putting everything in. At Wimbledon nearly a year ago, it was 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol who took it to Nadal and beat him in the second round. At the French Open on Monday, in Nadal’s return to Grand Slam action after missing seven months with knee trouble, it was 59th-ranked Daniel Brands of Germany in the guest-star role.
Like Rosol, Brands is 6 feet 5 and lanky. Like Rosol, Brands employed a go-for-broke style and was hitting big. And for one set and most of the next during a first-round match, against the most successful man in Roland Garros history, it worked.
Nadal owns a record seven French Open titles, including the past three. His bid to become the only man with eight championships at any of tennis’ quartet of most important tournaments got off to a slow start before he restored order by coming back to beat Brands 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, 6-3.
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“He was trying to hit every ball as hard as he can,” said Nadal, who improved to 37-2 this season, with 16 victories in a row. “He made me suffer, I can tell you.”
Brands came in 0-4 at the French Open, with a sub-.500 record in all Tour matches, and his strategy was from Rosol’s playbook: Keep points short and aim for the lines.
“That’s the way. If you give Nadal time, there’s no chance. You have to be aggressive. That’s my view,” Rosol, who is up to 36th in the world rankings, said Monday after winning his first-round match. “If other players play aggressive against him, that’s the only way to beat him.”
Toni Nadal, who is Rafael’s uncle and coach, saw similarities with the last time his nephew played at a Grand Slam event.
“Yes, it was a little the same,” Toni said. “Against Rosol, in the fifth set, we couldn’t do anything.”
But when a reporter wanted to know whether there is a pattern being established as to the type of opponent who can bother Rafael, Toni shrugged off the suggestion.
Had the third-seeded Nadal lost the match, it would have been one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history. Even losing the first set was significant, considering Nadal began the day having dropped 14 of the 170 sets he had contested at the clay-court event.
The victory improved Nadal’s career record at Roland Garros to 53-1, the loss coming in the fourth round in 2009 against Robin Soderling, a 6-foot-4 free swinger.
There was no stress for the tournament’s other defending champion, Russian Maria Sharapova, who needed 54 minutes to overpower 42nd-ranked Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan 6-2, 6-1. Or for 2011 women’s champion Li Na, a 6-3, 6-4 winner against Anabel Medina Garrigues. Or for 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone, who also won in straight sets.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands got past Lourdes Dominguez Lino of Spain, part of a 6-1 day for U.S. women, including victories by No. 17 Sloane Stephens, No. 29 Varvara Lepchenko, Melanie Oudin, Vania King and Madison Keys.
• Nicole Gibbs of Stanford and Blaz Rola of Ohio State won NCAA singles titles in Urbana, Ill.
Gibbs, a junior who plans to turn pro, repeated as women’s champion by routing a hobbled Mary Weatherholt of Nebraska 6-2, 6-4. Rola, who is from Slovenia, became the first men’s tennis champion for the Buckeyes, beating Jarmere Jenkins of Virginia 7-6 (10-8), 6-4.