Thursday, June 20, 2024

Rafael Nadal loses to Alexander Zverev in what may be his French Open farewell

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On the 115 occasions that Rafael Nadal had previously stepped out to compete on the courts of Roland Garros, he had lost just three times. Across two decades, he had orchestrated one of the greatest eras of dominance in sporting history, pushing the art of clay court tennis to unimaginable heights. For so long, his success in Paris seemed so inevitable.

Now it may be over. As Nadal returned this year unseeded, days away from his 38th birthday and desperately searching for form of old, his brutal first-round draw against Alexander Zverev pitted his ­muscle memory of greatness against a top contender with ideal form and preparation.

In one of the most highly anticipated men’s first-round matches in the sport’s history, there were no miracles to be found under Court Philippe-Chatrier’s roof as Zverev withstood a tense, rousing second-set fightback from Nadal before winning 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3.

Nadal’s defeat marks the first time he has lost in the opening round at Roland Garros. He returned to the tour last month after being largely absent for 15 months after hip surgery in 2023, yet Nadal must now reckon with the possibility that this may be his last showing at the tournament that has defined his career.

“It’s incredible, the amount of energy, It’s difficult for me to talk,” Nadal said. “ I don’t know if it’s gonna be the last time if I’m going to be here in front of all of you. Honestly, I’m not 100% sure, but if it’s the last time, I enjoyed it.

“The feelings that I have today are difficult to describe in words but for me it’s so special to feel the love from the people, in the way that I felt in the place that I won the most.”

The significance of this moment was reflected in the other top players present, as Novak Djokovic, Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz took in the occasion from the overflowing stands. As Nadal entered Court Philippe-Chatrier, he was predictably serenaded with an immense outpouring of appreciation from 15,000 people. As usual, every single one of his 14 titles was counted down by Marc Maury, the French Open announcer, during his warm-up.

Rafael Nadal told the Paris crowd after the match that ‘it’s difficult to say what’s happening in the future’. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

But a grim opening service game from the Spaniard offered an immediate reminder of his current limitations. After dropping his service game to love, Nadal spent the rest of the set chasing shadows as Zverev fired down rockets while averaging 78% first serves in, dominating the baseline exchanges and attacking his forehand.

Just as the match seemed to be moving away from Nadal in the ­second set at 1-2, 15-40, on his serve, Nadal came alive. After recovering to hold serve, he used his momentum brilliantly, forcing himself inside the baseline, unleashing his down-the-line forehand and eventually establishing a 5-3 lead.

But Zverev played a spectacular return game to retrieve the break, and in the tie-break, under significant pressure, the player with ample matches under his belt logically won the most important points.

As Zverev closed out the encounter in three tough sets, Nadal made the German’s life difficult throughout, offering many glimpses of the quality that has garnered him so much success. He fought until the bitter end. But with so little preparation behind him, it was simply not enough against a top player.

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Although he received no ceremony at his request, Nadal remained on court to address his audience at the most important tournament of his career. Again, he said his future is uncertain: “For me, it’s difficult to say what’s happening in the future.

Alexander Zverev withstood a tense, rousing second-set fightback from Nadal. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

“Probably it’s a big percentage that I’ll not be back playing here in Roland Garros but I can’t say 100%. I enjoyed a lot being here, I am travelling with the family and I am having fun. The body is feeling a little bit better now than two months ago.

“Maybe in two months I say: ‘It’s enough, I can’t give anything else.’ But it’s something I don’t feel yet. I have some goals in mind. I hope to be back on this court for the Olympics, it’s something that motivates me. That will be another chance and I really hope to be well prepared. The amount of feelings I had on this amazing court during all of my tennis career is just unbelievable.”

Only time will tell if this is Nadal’s last appearance at Roland Garros. But after training and competing for a month without any major physical issues and being competitive against one of the best players in the world with minimal preparation, it is clear that he would love to continue competing and to explore his limits late in his career. It remains to be seen if his body will allow him to do so.

For Zverev, the second round awaits. On Friday, during third-round action in Paris, his public trial begins in Berlin for allegedly physically abusing his ex-partner, Brenda Patea. Zverev denies the allegations.

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