Defending champion Nadal sweats it out against Daniel Brands; Monaco makes early exit

Gael Monfils, whose career has recently been hampered by injuries, returned to the French Open with a bang on Monday to beat Czech fifth seed Tomas Berdych in a first-round marathon.

Monfils, the World No. 81, prevailed 7-6(8), 6-4, 6-7(3), 6-7(4), 7-5 in front of an ecstatic Court Philippe Chatrier after four hours and three minutes. Monfils then pounded his chest with his fist as the crowd roared one last time.

The Frenchman, who reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2008 and missed last year’s event because of a knee injury, wrapped up the match with his fourth match point when Berdych sent a backhand long.

He hit 26 aces and was broken only once. Berdych, the Wimbledon runner-up in 2010, has now lost in the first round at a major event 10 times.

Argentine Juan Monaco also made a shock first round exit, losing to Spain’s Daniel Gimeno-Traver 4-6, 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-4, 6-4.

Rafael Nadal’s bid for an unprecedented eighth Roland Garros title was given a huge scare by unheralded German Daniel Brands before the Spanish superstar prevailed 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-4, 6-3.

Defending champion Nadal, who has lost just once in 53 matches at Roland Garros, dropped the opening set of a Grand Slam for the first time in his career as Brands, the World No.59, unleashed a barrage of attacks off both sides to leave the third seed reeling.

Brands also 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, who arrived in Paris having won six titles in eight finals since his return from a seven-month injury lay-off, eventually found his rhythm to steady the ship as the 25-year-old 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 third-seeded Nadal.

“He played a great match and put me in a tricky situation.”

Following example

At the start, Brands looked to have taken inspiration from Robin Soderling, the only man to have beaten Nadal at Roland Garros, and Lukas Rosol, who dumped the Spaniard out of Wimbledon last year.

He unleashed a barrage of super-charged winners, throwing caution to the cold Paris winds.

Nadal was clearly rattled and a double fault gave the German a break for 5-4 in the opener and the set was wrapped up with a down-the-line winner.

It was only the 15th set Nadal had lost in his Roland Garros career.

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 didn’t give him another chance as he took the ’breaker to level the tie at a set apiece.

The Spaniard was quickly 2-0 ahead in the third set, saved a break point in the eighth before a brutal forehand winner gave him a two-sets-to-one lead.

A break in the opening game of the fourth set gave Nadal the edge he needed and the tie was his when Brands went wide with a weary forehand.

Also going through to the second round was 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. He started confidently enough with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 win over Aljaz Bedene of Slovenia.

Other early winners Monday included Japan's 13th seed Kei Nishikori, Tommy Robredo, the Spanish 32nd seed and Australian 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios who beat Radek Stepanek, 16 years his senior, on his Grand Slam debut.

Li Na advances

On the women’s side, Li Na, the 2011 champion, and fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska were early winners.

Sixth seeded Li was a 6-3, 6-4 victor 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.

Radwanska, who has never got beyond the last 16 in Paris, breezed past Israel’s Shahar Peer 6-1, 6-1 while younger sister Urszula, who knocked out Venus Williams on Sunday. Danish 10th seed Caroline Wozniacki saw off British hope Laura Robson 6-3, 6-2.

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(8), 6-0.

Qualifier Kucovca is ranked 1,152 in the world and had lost in qualifying on 21 occasions before making her breakthrough this week.

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