Roland Garros: Nadal d. Brands

by: Richard Pagliaro May 26, 2013

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Daniel Brands spent two sets driving Rafael Nadal up the wall, but the reigning champion refused to be boxed in. Trailing by a set and 3-0 in the second-set tiebreaker, Nadal was empowered by his appetite for the fight in scrambling and snarling his way through a 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-3 first-round skirmish to extend his winning streak to 16 matches.

Winless in four prior Roland Garros appearances, Brands played as if Chatrier was his favorite practice court. Refusing to allow Nadal to bully him around the court with his topspin forehand, the 6'5" German stepped inside the baseline, took the Spaniard's topspin on the rise and tomahawked his forehand into the corners. Whipping the wide serve effectively to create space and set up his forehands with crunch and control, Brands serve-and-volleyed at times to exploit Nadal's deep return positioning and tried to keep the points short.

In the eighth game of the match, Brands stared down double break point and did not blink, saving the first with a serve-and-volley winner and the second with a punishing inside-out forehand to hold for 4-all. Playing with caution, Nadal dropped back a bit further and his shots began to land a little bit shorter. Brands flattened an inside-out forehand winner and followed by blistering a ball into Nadal's hip, forcing the Rafa to net a forehand off his back foot for break point. Nadal then nudged a second serve into net—his second double fault of the game—to gift Brands the break and a 5-4 lead.

Cracking an ace down the middle for triple set point, Brands closed the 36-minute opener with a forehand winner down the line. He had found his forehand groove, hitting seven of his 11 first-set winners off that wing. Nadal, who dropped just one set in seven matches en route to his seventh Roland Garros crown last year, lost the opening set in a French Open first rounder for the first time.

In the second set, Brands smacked an ace to erase the only break point of the set, eventually holding for 1-all. When Brands drilled a forehand winner down the line to reach 30-all in the ninth game, he was two points from a break. But Nadal wisely targeted Brands' backhand, drawing successive return errors to hold for 5-4. It would go to a pivotal tiebreaker.

Holding a 3-1 lead in the deciding session, Brands hit a hellacious kick serve that sent Nadal a few steps from vaulting the side wall into the front row, but he flicked a stretch return. Brands, perhaps surprised that the ball came back, buried a backhand into the bottom of the net, then misfired trying to squeeze successive shots up the line to give Nadal a 4-3 lead. Rifling a running forehand down the line that trampolined off the top of the tape and landed in the corner, Nadal earned a 5-3 edge. Another forehand winner down the line followed by a vintage backhand return winner down the line that blurred by Brands gave Nadal the one-hour second set as his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, leaped from his seat with a clenched fist.

Leveling the match energized Nadal, who broke at 30 to open the third set and fended off a break point with a forehand winner. Nadal saved another break point with a smart serve down the T to hold for 5-3 and closed the third set with a forehand winner, sustaining that momentum by breaking at 30 to start the fourth set. While Nadal was passive in his return positioning for much of the day, he served with more authority as the match progressed, winning 16 of 17 service points in the fourth set, closing a tricky two-hour, 54-minute affair with three consecutive love holds.

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