PARIS: Rafael Nadal’s bid for an historic eighth French Open title was almost spectacularly derailed on Monday by big-hitting German Daniel Brands.
But there were no such problems for defending women’s champion Maria Sharapova who eased past Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-Wei in just 54 minutes, surrendering only eight points on serve.
Seven-time champion Nadal dropped the opening set of a Grand Slam for the first time in his career before he prevailed 4-6, 7-6 (7/4), 6-4, 6-3 against a player who had lost all four of his previous matches in Paris.
The Spaniard, who before this year had only lost once in 53 outings at Roland Garros, came into the tournament having won six titles in eight finals since he returned from a seventh-month injury lay-off.
But the 26-year-old was caught cold by world number 59 Brands who unleashed a fearless barrage of attacks off both sides to leave the third seed reeling.
It was almost a carbon copy of the tactics employed by Robin Soderling, the only man to beat Nadal in Paris four years ago, and Lukas Rosol, who dumped the Spaniard out of Wimbledon last year.
Brands even led 3/0 in the second set tie-breaker as he appeared poised to deliver the first defeat of a men’s champion in the opening round in tournament history.
But Nadal eventually found his rhythm to steady the ship as the 25-year-old German eventually ran out of firepower.
“He was playing unbelievable. I tried to find my game and tried to resist his fantastic shots,” said Nadal, who will face Martin Klizan of Slovakia for a place in the last 32.
“He played a great match and put me in a tricky situation.” Czech fifth seed Tomas Berdych was the biggest casualty of the day when the 2010 semi-finalist fell to French wildcard Gael Monfils.
Monfils, whose career has been plagued recently by a knee injury, triumphed 7-6 (10/8), 6-4, 6-7 (3/7), 6-7 (4/7), 7-5 in a shade over four hours.
The flamboyant 26-year-old Frenchman, a semi-finalist in 2008, will next tackle in-form Ernests Gulbis.
Sharapova brushed past hapless world number 42 Hsieh, 6-2, 6-1 and will next face Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard.
Sharapova, who completed a career Grand Slam in Paris in 2012, fired 25 winners to Hsieh’s eight and kept her unforced errors to just four against 24.
The Russian second seed was joined in the next round by three former champions, Li Na, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Francesca Schiavone.
Li, the 2011 champion, enjoyed a 6-3, 6-4 win over Anabel Medina Garrigues, the experienced Spaniard playing in her 38th consecutive Grand Slam event.
Li, who had lost all of her three previous meetings on clay against Garrigues, goes on to face Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States.
Kuznetsova, the 2009 champion, put out fellow Russian, the 22nd seeded Ekaterina Makarova, 6-4, 6-2.
Italy’s Schiavone, the 2010 title winner, saw off Hungary’s Melinda Czink 6-0, 7-6 (7/1).
Polish fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska, who has never got beyond the last 16, breezed past Israel’s Shahar Peer 6-1, 6-1 and will face America’s Mallory Burdette in the next round.
She is scheduled to face younger sister Urszula, who knocked out Venus Williams on Sunday, in the third round.
Elsewhere in the men’s event, French sixth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who is looking to become the first home player to win the men’s title since Yannick Noah in 1983, started confidently enough with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 win over Aljaz Bedene of Slovenia.
“My groundstrokes pretty solid from the baseline. I played pretty well, but my service was really low quality,” said Tsonga.
Meanwhile, in the women’s singles, there was also a first ever win in the majors for Slovakian 20-year-old Zuzana Kucova who defeated German 24th seed Julia Goerges 7-6 (10/8), 6-0.
Qualifier Kucova is ranked at 1,152 in the world and had lost in qualifying on 21 occasions before making her breakthrough this week.