By Toby Davis
With a piercing flat forehand and a serve launched from high in the Parisian sky, Daniel Brands laid out a blueprint for how to upset claycourt king Rafa Nadal in his own backyard.
For the best part of two sets on Court Philippe Chatrier on Monday, Nadal was lost for ideas and looking up into the ether for a drip of inspiration to help him fathom a solution to Brands’ hard hitting, heavy-pressure tennis.
It was not the first time the seven-times champion had been shaken by a big server with the hammerhead approach shot.
American John Isner led Paris’s imperious matador by two sets to one in 2011 while the Spaniard’s only defeat in 53 previous matches at Roland Garros came in 2009 at the hands of Robin Soderling, who was a honed and refined version of Brands.
It also bore a striking similarity to the way Lukas Rosol sent Nadal packing in the second round at Wimbledon last year, firing huge forehand winners under the roof lights of Centre Court.
While the German, ranked a modest 59 in the world having lived out the majority of his tennis career in relative obscurity, eventually succumbed 4-6 7-6 6-4 6-3, he laid out a road map for others to follow.
“I think if you play against Rafa you have to play aggressive from the beginning,” was the German’s simple take on how to trouble Nadal.
“Just try to put some pressure always. I think that’s the main goal. If you can do this, I think you have a chance to compete against Rafa.
“I was trying to hit with a lot of pressure to break his rhythm. I did it quite well until the third set.”
Having entered the tournament on the back of a 15-match winning streak with five titles won on clay in 2013, Nadal is an overwhelming favourite to win a record-extending eighth French Open title.
Unsurprisingly, he was keen to play down the fact that his opponent may have stumbled upon a tactical device to shake him out of his comfort zone on clay.
What fans witnessed was merely a player who had decided to come out swinging and for a brief period, pulled it off.
“The problem is not the tactic,” he said. “The problem is the execution that he did very well…
“I think that he arrived on the court completely decided upon striking all the balls, 100 percent, and he was inspired.
“He played his game right up to the hilt, all the balls, all his services he played, and he was just firing on all cylinders.”
Brands had never won a main-draw match at Roland Garros in four previous attempts and his best grand slam result came when he reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon in 2010.
“I think he didn’t know me until the match, and I think he was surprised,” Brands said of his illustrious opponent.
At 3-0 down in the second set tiebreak, Nadal resorted to the age-old trick of upping the decibel level and trying to spark some life into his laboured performance with some lung-busting grunts.
An ill-timed slice into the net from Brands handed the initiative to the Spaniard, who won seven out of the last eight points in the tiebreak to turn the momentum of the match in his favour.
“Maybe I was too sure to win the point and lost a little bit concentration on this ball, and normally that shouldn’t happen against him,” said Brands.
“Maybe that was the turning point.”
With rival Novak Djokovic, one of the few players who can get under Nadal’s skin, in the same side of the draw, his hopes of reaching a fourth consecutive final are reduced.
While Djokovic lacks the massive serve that Brands used to great effect, he would be unlikely to take his foot off the gas in the same way as the German should the opportunity present itself.