After more than 90 minutes of tense tennis, Nadal had finally won a set, leaving him only 20 sets from another French Open championship.
The Spaniard survived an early scare Monday and successfully began his bid for an eighth title at Roland Garros by rallying past Daniel Brands of Germany, 4-6, 7-6 (4),
Nadal, who had lost only 14 sets in 53 previous matches at the French Open, fell behind when he was broken in the ninth game. He trailed 3-0 in the tiebreaker, then summoned his best shot-making to salvage the set and soon was in control against the dangerous Brands.
“He was playing unbelievable,” Nadal said. “He was trying to hit every ball as hard as he can. Sometimes you feel you are not hitting a bad shot, and every time comes back a bomb. So I am very happy
to be through, seriously.”
Nadal, who won a record seventh French Open title last year, improved to 53-1 at Roland Garros. He’s 37-2 since returning in February after a seven-month layoff because of a left knee injury, reaching the finals at all eight tournaments he played and winning six.
Defending women’s champion Maria Sharapova needed only 54 minutes to advance, beating Hsieh Su-wei 6-2, 6-1. The No. 2-seeded Sharapova lost eight points in eight service games.
U.S. women fanned out to remote courts and quietly went 6-1. That included victories by Madison Keys, who won her Roland Garros debut, and by Melanie Oudin, who ousted No. 28 Tamira Paszek 6-4, 6-3. No. 17 Sloane Stephens, who reached the fourth round last year, beat Karin Knapp 6-2, 7-5.
American Ryan Harrison won a match at Roland Garros for the first time in three tries, beating Andrey Kuznetsov 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (4). He next plays fellow American and friend John Isner, who improved to 4-4 at Roland Garros by beating Carlos Berlocq 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
Li Na, the 2011 women’s champion, beat Anabel Medina Garrigues in her opening match, 6-3, 6-4. Agnieszka Radwanska, last year’s runner-up at Wimbledon, defeated Shahar Peer 6-1, 6-1.
The 6-foot-5 Brands, ranked 59th, came into his match against Nadal with an 0-4 career record at Roland Garros. But he gained a foothold with his big forehand and serves of up to 134 mph, while Nadal’s feared groundstrokes lacked their normal depth and force at the outset.
The capacity crowd on center court sensed a possible upset and began rooting for Brands. But he gave Nadal an opening in the tiebreaker, blowing an easy backhand approach to make it 3-all.
“I was too sure to win the point and lost a little bit of concentration,” Brands said. “That shouldn’t happen against him.”
From there the match quickly turned. On set point Nadal stretched to crack a backhand return into the corner for a winner, sparking his first celebration of the day.
“Winning the tiebreak, well, it was just like some oxygen,” Nadal said. “I could finally breathe.”
He earned his first service break of the match in the third set and held the rest of the way, serving better once he had the lead.
Seeded third but a heavy favorite, Nadal won his 16th consecutive match, and he improved to 34-0 in the first round at Grand Slams. He’s trying to become the first man to win eight titles at the same major event.
Li, seeded No. 6, entered her match against Medina Garrigues with an 0-3 record on clay versus the Spaniard, but raced to a 4-0 lead after 20 minutes and broke serve six times.
Former top-ranked player Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark ended a five-match losing streak by defeating Laura Robson 6-3, 6-2.
No. 4 Radwanska needed less than hour to advance. It was her first match since withdrawing before last week’s Brussels tournament with a recurrence of the right shoulder injury that has bothered her the past couple of years.
“I decided to have a week of rest and just practice,” she said. “I think it was a good move.”
She’ll next play American Mallory Burdette, who won in her Roland Garros debut Sunday. Radwanska was asked what she knew about her second-round opponent.
“To be honest, not much. Nothing at all, actually,” she said with a smile. “I might Google her.”
The search for the next generation of U.S. stars has been ongoing, which made Monday’s success notable. Keys beat Misaki Doi 6-3, 6-2; Vania King defeated Alexandra Cadantu 7-6 (3), 6-1; Bethanie Mattek-Sands eliminated Lourdes Dominguez Lino 6-4, 6-1; and No. 29 Varvara Lepchenko beat Mirjana Lucic-Baroni 6-1, 6-2.
“It’s funny, because a couple of years ago, everyone was asking me: Where is women’s tennis?” Mattek-Sands said. “Here we are now.”
American Christina McHale lost to Jana Cepelova of Slovakia 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-4.
On the men’s side, Michael Russell of the United States retired with a left hamstring injury trailing Martin Klizan 3-6, 6-3, 6-1. Klizan plays Nadal in the second round.
Wild card Gael Monfils of France thrilled a partisan center court crowd by upsetting No. 5 Tomas Berdych in a match that ended at twilight, 7-6 (8), 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-7 (4), 7-5. Nick Kyrgios of Australia, at 18 the youngest player in the men’s draw, made a successful Grand Slam debut by beating 34-year-old Radek Stepanek 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 7-6 (11).