PARIS (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal was forced to dig deep into his near bottomless resolve to salvage a 4-6 7-6 6-4 6-3 first-round win over Germany’s Daniel Brands on Monday that had threatened to turn nasty for the seven-times French Open champion.
The Spaniard who has lost only once in eight years at Roland Garros, was a set and 3-0 down in the second-set tiebreak before finally subduing the 59th-ranked Brands.
Playing his first grand slam match since crashing out of last year’s Wimbledon to lowly-ranked Czech Lukas Rosol, history threatened to repeat itself as Brands, who had never won a match at Roland Garros in four attempts, dictated the early stages.
Nadal, down to fourth in the rankings after seven months out injured, broke in the first game of both the third and fourth sets to wrestle back control of the match.
“I know he was playing unbelievable tennis,” Nadal said in his courtside interview. “I tried to find my game and to resist his fantastic shots. I am very happy to be through in this fantastic game.”
Nadal surged on to the court with his usual bouncing gait, but that was where all familiarity with the king of the Parisian clay ended.
Since returning in February, Nadal has won six of his eight tournaments and is on a 15-match winning streak, but he looked heavy-footed as Brands’s steeplejack serve and pounding flat forehands blew holes in the Spaniard’s defenses.
Murmurs of disbelief echoed around a sun-bathed Philippe Chatrier court as Brands pulled off the unthinkable feat of breaking Nadal in the ninth game when the 11-times grand slam champion dumped a second serve into the net.
The German wrapped up the set in 36 minutes with one of many huge forehand winners and had Nadal looking listlessly to the skies for inspiration when he failed to convert a breakpoint in the second game of the second set.
The turning-point came in the tiebreak, when after conceding the first three points, Nadal won seven of the next eight to level the match.
An immediate break at the start of the third brought back something resembling the natural order and with the German’s resolve weakened, Nadal strode clear with two further breaks in the fourth.
Next up for Nadal is a second-round clash with Slovakia’s Martin Klizan or American Michael Russel.
Reporting by Toby Davis; editing by Ed Osmond