Rafa needed four sets in the first round. Reuters

All seemed normal as Rafa Nadal walked on to Chatrier Court to begin his pursuit of an eighth French Open title but Germany's Daniel Brands ensured it was no regular Monday at the office for the defending champion who survived a huge scare.

Nadal, as expected, took his place in the second round but his 4-6 7-6 6-4 6-3 win over the inspired German who had never won a main draw match at Roland Garros was fraught with danger as he flirted with the unthinkable.

After a relatively thrill-free opening day on Sunday, fans flocked to the brick dust courts beside the Bois de Boulogne to feast their eyes on a line-up loaded with big names.

Former women's champion Li Na began with a grafting 6-3 6-4 first round win against Spain's Anabel Medina Garrigues while home fans dreaming of a first French men's champion here since 1983 cheered loudly as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga turned on the style.

Russian powerhouse Maria Sharapova was set to turn up the volume later as she begins the defense of her title.

However, it was claycourt king Nadal's struggle that created the buzz around the crowds thronging the grounds.

The 26-year-old, looking to become the first man in history to win the same grand slam eight times, has been unstoppable in the build-up to the tournament he has dominated since winning the title as a teenager in 2005.

Five titles on clay since returning to the Tour after a seven-month injury lay-off, and the incredible statistic of a solitary defeat in his previous 53 French Open matches, should have made his first-round clash with Brands a formality.

When he banged the dirt off his shoes, performed the obligatory tug of his orange shorts and won the opening point with a dipping topspin forehand all looked well in Rafa World.

Then things got complicated for the former world No.1 in his first grand slam match since last year's shock second-round Wimbledon defeat by Czech Lukas Rosol.

Looking a sluggish and struggling to cope with the punishing, flat-hitting of 59th ranked Brands, Nadal double-faulted on a break point at 4-4 in first set and Brands seized his chance, claiming the first set with a forehand missile.

It was the first time Nadal had dropped the first set of a first round match at Roland Garros and only the 15th he had surrendered at the home of French tennis.

Since losing to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009, Nadal had never lost the opening set of a match at the French Open and as Brands continued to show scant regard for Nadal's reputation a repeat of that shock looked possible.

Especially when Brands held off break points at the start of the second set and dragged Nadal into a tense tiebreaker.

With the capacity crowd glued to the action, Brands fired down two huge winners to take a 3-0 lead but just when the alarm bells began to ring loudly in the Nadal camp, the Mallorcan was let off the hook.

A Brands backhand sliced low into the net gave Nadal a new lease of life and the Spaniard won seven of the final eight points in the tiebreak to level the match, roaring as much in relief as joy after dispatching a fizzing backhand passing shot on set point.

After breaking the mighty Brands serve for the first time in the opening game of the third set, Nadal always looked the likely winner, although his performance will offer hope to those wishing to knock him off his perch.

"He was playing unbelievable tennis and I was just trying to find my game and resist his great shots and I'm very happy to be through," a relieved Nadal said in a courtside interview after peeling off his knee bandages.

While Nadal was toiling, sixth seed Tsonga was entertaining the crowd out on Suzanne Lenglen court, outclassing Slovenia's Aljaz Bedene 6-2 6-2 6-3 with a performance of pace and power.

Several women's seeds progressed, including China's 2011 champion Li, who made light of poor head-to-head record against Medina Garrigues to move through.

Fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska, playing despite a painful shoulder, thrashed Israel's Shahar Peer 6-1 6-1 while former world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki ended a dreadful recent run of first-round defeats to beat Britain's Laura Robson 6-3 6-2.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)