Tennis

Nadal struggles early at French Open

NERVOUS SYSTEM
Defending champion Rafael Nadal dropped his opening set at Roland Garros.
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PARIS (AP)

Rafael Nadal knows this story well. All too well. Saw it up close the previous time he played in a major tournament, actually.

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,'' Nadal said. ''He made me suffer, I can tell you.''

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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. Or No. 4-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska, last year's runner-up at Wimbledon, who 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.

The older Radwanska will now face Mallory Burdette, who won her French Open debut 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.''

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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.

Brands' 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 after winning his French Open match Monday. ''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.

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''Yes, it was a little the same,'' Uncle 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.

Brands, meanwhile, is now 0-5 at the French Open. He didn't even play in the main draw last year in Paris because he failed to make it out of qualifying.

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.''

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