Tennis: Nadal pushed hard by unheralded Brands in French Open first round

PARIS (AFP) - Rafael Nadal's bid for an unprecedented eighth French Open title was given a huge scare by unheralded German Daniel Brands on Monday before the Spanish star prevailed 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, 6-3.

The defending champion, who had lost only once in 53 matches at Roland Garros, dropped the opening set of a Grand Slam for the first time in his career, as world No. 59 Brands unleashed a barrage of attacks to leave the third seed reeling.

Brands, who had lost all four of his previous first round matches in Paris, also led 3-0 in the second set tie-breaker, before Nadal belatedly found his rhythm to steady the ship

Nadal, who arrived in Paris having won six titles in eight finals since his return from a seven-month injury lay-off, then tightened his grip on the game as the Brands' big-hitting game plan ran out of firepower.

"He was playing unbelievable. I tried to find my game and tried to resist his fantastic shots," said Nadal. "He played a great match and put me in a tricky situation."

At the start, Brands looked to have taken inspiration from 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.

He unleashed a barrage of super-charged winners, rattling Nadal into a double fault which gave the German a break for 5-4 in the opener.

The 25-year-old then wrapped up set with a down-the-line winner. It was only the 15th set Nadal had lost in Roland Garros.

Brands continued his fearless assault in the second set, taking a 3-0 lead in the tie-breaker, which could have been 4-2 had he not blundered with a simple backhand volley.

That miss proved the turning point and Nadal did not give him another chance as he took the breaker to level the tie at a set apiece.

Nadal will face either Martin Klizan of Slovakia or Michael Russell of the United States for a place in the last 32.