Rafael Nadal’s bid to win the record-extending eighth French Open championship was in jeopardy Monday morning, but the King of Clay quickly rebounded for a 4-6 7-6 (5) 6-4 6-3 victory over Daniel Brands.
Nadal’s poor performance was concerning at first, with the overwhelming favorite in this tourney widely expected to have little trouble dispatching his No. 59-ranked German opponent in the first round.
However, the first-round showdown at Roland Garros marked the first time these two opponents have ever met on the court, revealing that the 6’5” Brands was not to be underestimated.
Following the blueprint that Robin Soderling laid out in 2009—when the Swedish star became the first and only player to date to vanquish Nadal at the French Open—Brands came out with a zip on his serve and constantly attacked with perfectly-placed, well-timed, hard shots deep into the Spaniard’s territory.
In the first set, the challenger seemed unflappable, especially with second service opportunities. He converted 83 percent of those points for a 6-4 victory and looked poised for an upset.
Rafa struggled to figure out his opponent until falling down 0-3 during the second-set tiebreaker, when Nadal rallied and forced Brands into a fatal mistake.
The German hit the net on a crucial backhand and Nadal took advantage. He put Brands on his heels quickly took the next two sets to advance to the second round of the tournament.
It was vintage Nadal, only it took a few shots across the chin for the No. 3 seed to finally realize he was standing on the red clay of Court Phillippe Chatrier and that this was his tournament to win.
After that rough start, the 26-year-old—who will turn 27 on June 3, when he’s likely still participating in this tourney—now appears back on a semifinals collision course with Novak Djokovic.
While Nole earned the No. 1 seed in this tourney, it’s still Rafa who commands the most respect on this surface and has won seven of the past eight French Open tournaments. If the King of Clay is able to scrape past his Serbian rival in that inevitable showdown, he’ll likely be staring across the court at another familiar face come Championship Sunday—Roger Federer.
Fed started his run at Roland Garros on a high note Sunday, destroying Pablo Carreno-Busta 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 in an 80-minute match that hardly tested the Swiss superstar. If he continues playing like that, there’s a great chance that the finals of this event comes down to a classic Federer vs. Nadal showdown.