PARIS (AP) – Rafael Nadal’s phone rang last week. On the other end was Guillermo Vilas, owner of four Grand Slam titles and the man whose 1977 record for consecutive victories on clay Nadal was approaching.

“I’m angry. You’re showing a lack of respect for your elders,” Vilas told the Spanish teen, tongue squarely in cheek. “If I see you, I don’t know what I’m going to do to you.”

Caught off-guard and uncertain whether Vilas was pulling his leg, Nadal stammered for a moment before catching on. Turns out, they saw each other Monday on center court at the French Open, and Vilas greeted him with a hug.

Nadal broke Vilas’ mark with his 54th straight win on clay, beating Robin Soderling of Sweden 6-2, 7-5, 6-1 at Roland Garros begin defense of his first Grand Slam title.

On-court trophy ceremonies usually are reserved for the closing weekend of a major tennis tournament. Yet after finishing off Soderling, Nadal was presented with a rectangular glass box containing the multiple layers of a clay court, and highlights from his French Open championship were shown on the video screens overhead. A tad over the top? Perhaps. But everyone seemed to agree this is an impressive achievement.

“It may be similar to a Joe DiMaggio streak, where it doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to get broken,” said the No. 8-seeded James Blake, who could face Nadal in the quarterfinals. “To win 53 matches in a row, you can’t be a little bit better than the rest of the field. You have to be so far above and beyond.”

Vilas, for his part, wasn’t all that disappointed to see his record eclipsed. After all, until Nadal began getting close, the Argentine had no idea he even owned the mark.

“They never gave me any trophy or anything at the time,” Vilas said, smiling.

Nadal improved to 8-0 at Roland Garros – he won the title in his debut – and he hasn’t lost on clay since April 8, 2005, against Igor Andreev at Valencia, Spain. There were moments of shakiness against Soderling, particularly when Nadal got broken while serving for the second set at 5-4.

But Nadal reeled off six games to regain control, chasing down ball after ball to the corners. That’s one of the traits that make him so tough on the surface, somehow putting his racket on opponents’ apparent winners.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you think you’ve put the ball away,” Blake said, “it seems like he gets it back one more time.”

Blake, who beat Nadal on a hard court at Indian Wells, Calif., in March, eliminated Paradorn Schrichaphan 6-0, 6-4, 7-6 (3) and now faces Nicolas Almagro, 19-6 on clay this year. Blake is 3-4 on the surface in 2006 and never has been past the second round at the French Open.

Because clay is considered something of an equalizer, dulling hard strokes and creating longer rallies than on grass or hard courts, Roland Garros often turns out surprising results.

There was little stunning about Monday’s happenings, though, with seeded players going 25-3, including wins for Nadal’s two immediate predecessors as French Open champion: 2003’s Juan Carlos Ferrero and 2004’s Gaston Gaudio. No. 16 Jarkko Nieminen quit because of stomach cramps, and the highest-ranked woman to exit was No. 18 Elena Likhovtseva, a 2005 semifinalist. She lost 6-1, 6-1 to Karolina Sprem, who upset Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2004 with the help of an extra point mistakenly awarded by the chair umpire.

There were no such glitches Monday for the 11th-seeded Williams in a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Sybille Bammer of Austria. Williams has won five majors, including Wimbledon last year, but injuries limited her to 10 matches this season and affected her ranking. Even she didn’t realize quite how much.

“What am I ranked?” Williams asked at her news conference. “What am I seeded?”

Duly informed, she said: “Well, I’ll work on that. It’s bound to go up.”

Not if she keeps racking up 33 unforced errors, including seven double-faults, as she did Monday. To be fair, a swirling wind made its away across tree-dotted Roland Garros, kicking clouds of dirt into players’ eyes and making balls move oddly.

“It just blew all the clay off the court, and there was, like, empty spots – you saw the concrete under the clay surface,” said U.S. Open champion Kim Clisters, who won on center court before Nadal. “It was almost like playing on a hard court.”

Maybe Nadal’s victory shouldn’t have counted toward the record, then.

Indeed, he appealed to the chair umpire to have more clay sprinkled on the court. Yep, Nadal loves the red stuff, the way it lets him slide, the way it holds balls up, giving him a chance to reach apparently unreachable shots.

“It’s satisfying because he knows he’s entered tennis history a bit,” said Nadal’s coach and uncle, Toni. “We know that the main thing is not to break these records, but to win tournaments.”

Associated Press Writer Jenny Barchfield contributed to this report.

AP-ES-05-29-06 1731EDT