PARIS — It's newsworthy when anyone wins a set against Rafael Nadal at any stage of the French Open — let alone two sets in the first round.
So a buzz built Tuesday at Roland Garros when unseeded American John Isner, a Tampa resident, pulled ahead of five-time champion Nadal by unfurling his 6-foot-9 frame to pound serves at upward of 140 mph.
Isner pushed to the net time after time for volleys, and generally made the Spaniard uncomfortable for stretches.
"Quite clearly," Nadal acknowledged later, "this is a match that I could have lost."
But, stretched to five sets for the first time in 40 career French Open matches, Nadal emerged with a 6-4, 6-7 (2-7), 6-7 (2-7), 6-2, 6-4 victory to reach the second round.
"Really, what it came down to is the way he played in the fourth and fifth sets," Isner said. "I haven't seen tennis like that, ever."
And that's coming from a man who gained fame last year at Wimbledon by winning the longest match ever, 70-68 in the fifth set against Nicolas Mahut, in a marathon that lasted more than 11 hours over the course of three days.
Nadal's bid to tie Bjorn Borg's record of six titles at the only Grand Slam on clay nearly came to a too-abrupt-to-believe halt.
• Nadal is 39-1 at the French Open, his only loss coming to two-time finalist Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009.
• Isner's career in Paris before Tuesday? One first-round exit and one trip to the third round, for a 2-2 record.
• Nadal is ranked No. 1 and owns nine Grand Slam titles.
• Isner is ranked 39th and never has been past the fourth round at a major tournament.
"You need to see the positive side of things. I was stressed, but I managed to overcome my stress," Nadal said through an interpreter.
The match was the most riveting on a day that featured reigning U.S. Open and Australian Open champion Kim Clijsters' first appearance at the French since 2006. She opened with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Anastasiya Yakimova. Also advancing were seeded players Maria Sharapova, Li Na, Andy Murray, Sam Querrey and Soderling.
Ana Ivanovic was overcome with emotion after losing as she considered her injury-plagued season. The 2008 French champion lost 7-6 (7-3), 0-6, 6-2 to Johanna Larsson, a Swede who earned only her second win in four Grand Slam appearances. Ivanovic also lost in the first round at the Australian Open.
"I try to look back and see what I've done then and to do the same things," the 20th-seeded Ivanovic said tearfully. "I'm just trying to work it out."
No. 22 seed Dominika Cibulkova also lost as did men's No. 11 seed Nicolas Almagro.
PLAYING THROUGH GRIEF: France's Virginie Razzano played for the first time since fiance Stephane Vidal died May 16 of a brain tumor at 32.
Razzano was defeated 6-3, 6-1 by No. 24 seed Jarmila Gajdosova.
"If I did this, it's for Stephane and for me, too, because it's what he wanted," Razzano said through tears at a postmatch news conference. "He wanted that I play, that I continue my life, even if circumstances like these are very, very difficult and painful."
Razzano, 28, wore a black ribbon pinned to the front of her shirt — a symbol of mourning other French women in the tournament also are wearing as a sign of support.