PARIS — Rafael Nadal knows this story well. All too well. Saw it up close the previous time he played in a major tournament.
Early round, main stadium, 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 in the guest-star role.
Like Rosol, Brands is 6-foot-5 and lanky. Like Rosol, Brands employed a go-for-broke style and was hitting big. And for one whole set and most of the next during a first-round match in Court Philippe Chatrier, against the most successful man in Roland Garros history, it worked.
Nadal already 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 a faltering Brands 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-3.
"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, and with a sub-.500 career record in all tour matches, and his strategy was right out of 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's now ranked 36th, 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.
"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's a pattern being established as to the type of foe who can bother Rafael, Toni shrugged that off, replying: "When you play against an opponent who serves really well, who puts in a high percentage of first serves, and who hits balls really fast, it's complicated for everyone — not just for Rafael."
Had the third-seeded Nadal lost the match, it would have been one of the biggest upsets in the sport's history. Even merely losing the first set was significant, though, considering that Nadal began the day having dropped only 14 of the 170 sets he'd contested at the clay-court major tournament.
The victory improved his career record at Roland Garros to 53-1, the only loss coming in the fourth round in 2009 against Robin Soderling, not incidentally a 6-foot-4 free swinger.
"It was very, very difficult for us," Toni Nadal said after Monday's match.
There was no such struggle for the tournament's other defending champion, Maria Sharapova, who needed all of 54 minutes to overpower 42nd-ranked Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan 6-2, 6-1. Or for 2011 women's titlist Li Na, a 6-3, 6-4 winner against Anabel Medina Garrigues. Or for 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone, who also won in straight sets.
No. 4-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska, last year's runner-up at Wimbledon, kept pace with her younger sister Urszula — producer of a three-set victory over Venus Williams a night earlier — by eliminating Shahar Peer 6-1, 6-1.
Li and Radwanska both play Americans next. Li goes up against Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who got past Lourdes Dominguez Lino of Spain, part of a 6-1 day for U.S. women, including wins by No. 17 Sloane Stephens, No. 29 Varvara Lepchenko, Melanie Oudin, Vania King and Madison Keys.
Two U.S. men won to set up a meeting for a spot in the third round: John Isner and Ryan Harrison.
The older Radwanska will now face American Mallory Burdette, who won her French Opendebut Sunday. Asked what she knew about her second-round opponent, Radwanska smiled.
"To be honest, not much. Nothing at all, actually," Radwanska freely admitted. "I might Google her."
In other Day 2 action, French wild-card recipient Gael Monfils surprised No. 5 Tomas Berdych 7-6 (8), 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-7 (4), 7-5, while Australia's Nick Kyrgios, at 18 the youngest player in the men's draw, made a successful Grand Slam debut by eliminating 34-year-old Radek Stepanek 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 7-6 (11).
Most of the attention and buzz, though, was about the way Brands-Nadal began.
Keeping Nadal under pressure has to be "the main goal" against the Spaniard, Brands explained.
"If you can do this," he said, "I think you have a chance to compete against Rafa."
As a note of caution, Brands added: "But ... if you play on the high level always, all the time in the match, I think that's really exhausting."
Consider that a word of caution for Nadal's future opponents. Next is Martin Klizan of Slovakia, who reached the second round when Michael Russell of the U.S. stopped because of a left hamstring injury while trailing 3-6, 6-3, 6-1.
Brand certainly didn't fit the profile of someone to challenge Nadal. The German didn't even play in the main draw last year at Roland Garros because he failed to make it out of qualifying, beaten by a guy ranked 630th at the time.
There's more: Brands never has won a tour title, never been ranked inside the top 50 (something that surprised Nadal). According to his biography on the ATP's website, Brands considers among his career highlights a third-round appearance at Hamburg and a semifinal run at Munich. And his "future goal," per that bio? Reaching the top 30.
In his final tournament before coming to Paris, last week in Duesseldorf, Brands just so happened to beat — guess who? — Rosol in the first round, before losing 6-0, 6-1 in the second to a player ranked 95th.
Yet on Monday, there Brands was, giving 11-time major champion Nadal fits and earning raucous cheers from fans who love to back an underdog.
When Nadal double-faulted twice in one game, he got broken to fall behind 5-4 in the first set, which Brands then closed with a forehand winner down the line set up by a 134 mph serve.
In the second set, Brands raced to a 3-0 tiebreaker edge, four points from a two-sets-to-none lead. When Nadal smacked a forehand winner to get to 3-2, he punctuated it with a yell of "Vamos!"
And then came the first real sign of nerves from Brands — and a turning point. Moving forward, he sliced a backhand approach shot that didn't work at all, nestling into the net. He hung his head, slumped his shoulders and shuffled to the other side of the court, the tiebreaker now 3-all.
"Lost a little bit (of) concentration," Brands acknowledged later.
Then, perhaps still contemplating that miscue, Brand pushed a forehand wide to make it 4-3, part of a momentum shift during which Nadal grabbed seven of the final eight points of that set.
When Nadal hit a forehand winner down the line, he hopped and shook a fist and yelled while turning around to see Uncle Toni leaping out of his seat in the stands. That gave Nadal a set point, and he converted it with another winner, then screamed and pumped his fist some more.
"I hit two fantastic shots," Nadal said. "That probably was the match."
That's true. He broke to begin the third set, and the fourth set, too, making the eventual outcome clear.
And even if Nadal started poorly, Uncle Toni pointed out, "In the end, what's important is to win." His nephew usually does around these parts.