Spain’s Nadal — a seven-time champion in Paris — was stunned by the wicked serve of the German hopeful and lost the first set of a first round match at a grand slam event for the first time in his career.
Brands threatened to take the second set, too, only to lose his concentration during a tie-break that handed the initiative back to the world No 4, who steadily resisted the German’s big hitting on his way to a 4-6 7-6 (7/4) 6-4 6-3 victory.
“He was just firing on all cylinders,” said a relieved Nadal. “He had a fantastic tactic. Maybe my tactic wasn’t very good. I don’t know where Brands is in the rankings but I can tell you that he can’t be 60th. The way he played, I just don’t believe it.
“He made me suffer. I can tell you, and I’d like to pay tribute to what he did. I’d like to wish him every success, everything that he deserves for the future,” the Spaniard added.
Another of the big favourites, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, brushed aside Aljaz Bedene 6-2 6-2 6-3 to book his place in the second round, while his countryman Gael Monfils secured one of the most notable wins of his career with a shock victory over fifth seed Tomas Berdych, winning 7-6 (10-8) 6-4 6-7 (3-7) 6-7 (4-7) 7-5.
In the women’s singles, defending champion Maria Sharapova booked her spot in the second round with a 6-2 6-1 victory over Hsieh Su-Wei.
The No 2 seed won in just 55 minutes, after breaking serve twice in each set.
The Russian outplayed Hsieh, from Taiwan, who won just two points on the Sharapova serve in the first set and did little better in the second.
Elsewhere, former world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki breezed through her opening match against Laura Robson of Great Britain, winning 6-3 6-2.
Robson went into the match having performed well on the clay recently, securing morale-boosting wins against Agnieszka Radwanska and Venus Williams, and she had two chances to break in the third game of the match, but twice found the net with backhands.
It would be the last time Robson was ahead as two double faults gave Wozniacki a break in the next game and, although the Londoner broke straight back, she then promptly gave her serve away again.
Radwanska also advanced and needed just 57 minutes to win her opening match, easily seeing off the challenge of Israel’s Shahar Peer 6-1 6-1.