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Monday, May 27, 2013
Rafael Nadal scare a wake-up call?

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

PARIS -- Daniel Brands is only 13 months younger than Rafael Nadal, but his experience at Roland Garros has been vastly, almost unimaginably, different.

Coming into Monday's first-round match, Brands -- a lithe, 6-foot-5 German who hits bombs for serves and frozen-rope forehands -- had never won a match here in four tries at the French Open. Nadal, meanwhile, will almost certainly retire as the winningest player ever at Roland Garros.

And yet, when Nadal was trying to forge a 5-4 lead in the first set on Court Philippe Chatrier, it was he who behaved like the neophyte, sending a nervous 125-kilometer second serve into the net. And when Brands stepped up to serve out the set, he did not waver in the slightest; he rifled a 213-kilo ace for a 40-love lead and later locked it down with a scorching forehand winner.

Rafael Nadal
For a guy who has lost just one career match at Roland Garros, this is not the match we were expecting.
We mention this because Nadal's record on the celebrated red clay entering the tournament was an unprecedented 52-1. And as you read this, of course, it has grown one better, to 53-1. That's only the best record anyone has ever posted at any Grand Slam.

But that doesn't mean Brands, with his red, Hummel cheeks, didn't momentarily scare the bejeezus out of the muscular Spaniard -- and the French Tennis Federation and a whole slew of broadcast partners, for that matter.

Nadal prevailed 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-3 … but for a while there, he looked quite mortal.

"It was a really tough match," Nadal said, quizzically raising his trademark left eyebrow. "I did not have a lot of fortunes to play, because he was hitting the ball as hard as he could. With this tactic, the problem is not the tactic, it's the execution. And he did very well."

As they say in advertising, it's all about the Brands. Even in defeat, you've got to give it up for the kid. Sure, he's still yet to win a match here. But … for the record, Nadal has never lost the first two sets in a best-of-five match on clay; he's now 76-1 and has been extended to five sets only three times.

Oh, and then there's this: Brands won 19 games from Nadal in those four sets. Last year, Rafa lost 19 games in his first four matches.

Brands said he wasn't nervous before the match. Playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the main court prepared him for what happened Monday. "He didn't know me until the match, and I think he was surprised," Brands said. "My plan was to hit the ball [to apply] lots of pressure to break his rhythm. I did it quite well until the third set."

Just to put his effort into some kind of context, consider the ridiculous history that Rafa is chasing here:

• With a title that has been predicted by numerous experts, Nadal would become the first man to ever win eight championships at a single Grand Slam. Roger Federer and Pete Sampras are the only ones to do it in the Open era, both at Wimbledon.

• An eighth victory at Roland Garros would give Rafa at least one Grand Slam title in nine straight years. That hasn't been done, either.

• If Nadal does manage to take this title -- and Federer loses before the semifinals -- Rafa will lead all men here with 59 victories.

And to think, Rafa came perilously close -- within a whisper, really -- to dropping the first two sets.

Brands actually won the first three points of the second-set tiebreaker. But after Rafa backed up both his serves, Brands found himself in a terrific position to go up 4-2, maybe even 5-2. After hitting a sweet second serve, short and sharply wide, Brands slid toward the net and had a very makeable backhand volley -- and an open court into which to hit it. The ball found the net and Brands fell down in disbelief. On the next point, a sliding forehand down the line was wide, and Rafa was up 4-3.

"Yeah, maybe I was too sure to win the point and lost a little concentration," Brands said. "Normally, that shouldn't happen."

The 60-minute session was unofficially over when Nadal smoked a forehand winner to take a 6-4 lead, punctuated by a formidable uppercut fist pump and a skipping sequence of sorts. A backhand service winner made it official, and Nadal was on his way to a four-set victory.

And what will Brands take from this outing? Clearly, some belief. After losing the second-set tiebreaker he didn't go away, fighting Nadal to 5-4, 30-all before a classic Rafa forehand down the line took the third set. Brands' big game translates far better on grass, where he reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon in 2010. It remains the only time in a Grand Slam when he won back-to-back matches.

There was a time (2005) when Rafa was the outsider here, a swashbuckling pirate in search of a ship. Today, he is the establishment. The sleeveless shirt and mid-shin-length shorts have reversed themselves; his salmon-colored shorts are dangerously short and his sleeves are only slightly shorter than regulation. The white athletic tape wrapped a dozen times around his left knee is a reminder of his recent mortality.

Nadal missed seven months with a knee injury, including last year's US Open and the Australian Open back in January. Since coming back, Rafa has now won 32 of his 34 matches on clay, including 16 straight, and six overall titles, a personal best coming into Paris.

Sometimes an early scare can be a wake-up call for a top-seeded player. In this case, though, it will leave more people wondering if No. 1-seeded Novak Djokovic -- who beat Nadal last month in the Monte Carlo final -- will finally collect his career Grand Slam, after beating Rafa in the semifinals.

Rafa was asked if he was frustrated during the match.

"Do you think?" he said, sounding very secure in his second language, and drawing a laugh.

"You lose the first set, OK, it's going to be a long match. But when you see the opportunities going [away], you are in more than a problem.

"I find solutions at the right time."

Those solutions will be harder to discover if he and Djokovic both reach the semifinals here a week from Friday.