Rafael Nadal loses in first round of French Open for first time

ByABC News
May 27, 2024, 1:59 PM

PARIS -- Rafael Nadal's potential final run at the men's singles French Open title ended in the first round as he fell to Alexander Zverev in straight sets Monday afternoon.

There were hopes Nadal would make yet another fairy-tale run here at Roland Garros, but No. 4 seed Zverev dispatched him 6-3, 7-5 (5), 6-3 in 3 hours and 5 minutes.

After the defeat, Nadal said there is a "big percentage" this will be his final French Open, but he still intends to return to Roland Garros to compete in the Olympics later this summer.

"I don't know what's going to happen in the next few months," Nadal said. "I need to finish all this process. My mindset was ready 'til Olympics, you know, and then I need to check how I feel in different ways, I mean, in terms of personal motivation, body feelings, and then in terms of level of tennis it [may] make sense to keep playing."

Nadal said playing Wimbledon "looks difficult," as he is likely to remain focused on the clay court.

"My main goal now is to play Olympics," he said. "That's going to be here. So I need to prepare myself the proper way to try to arrive here healthy and well prepared, and then let's see."

On Monday in Paris, the nostalgia was inescapable. For so long Nadal, 37, has held this place in the palm of his hand, winning an astonishing 14 singles titles here, to make it 22 Grand Slams overall. They already have a statue honoring him here, and in front of a packed Court Philippe-Chatrier, his adoring fans were hoping for one more run. The trumpets in the crowd heralded any break of serve, Nadal's fist pumps whipped the crowd up into a Rafa frenzy, but it was not to be.

It had that feeling of a farewell to a beloved son of these parts, with Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek all in the crowd to witness what could be his final French Open match. But instead of seeing yet another Nadal triumph -- his record coming into this at Roland Garros was 112-3 -- they saw a superb performance from Zverev, who hit 44 winners to Nadal's 34.

Zverev, 27, now becomes just the third man to win against Nadal at Roland Garros, following in the footsteps of Robin Soderling (2009) and Djokovic (2015 and 2021). And though there were glimpses of the old Nadal with some of his ruthless forehands, Zverev's relentless consistency and precision saw him through.

Nadal came into the match as underdog, off the back of a turbulent 15 months. He announced his withdrawal from the 2023 French Open last May and ended up missing the rest of the year with a hip injury that required surgery. He made his comeback at Brisbane this January but suffered a muscle injury there, and subsequently revealed he was having abdominal issues.

After an exhibition match against Alcaraz in March, he missed Monte Carlo, before making his comeback at Barcelona. He reached the second round there, the round of 16 in Madrid and then lost in the second round in Rome, meaning his 2024 clay-court record coming into the French Open was 5-3.

There was a feeling of this being his farewell swing at Roland Garros, having previously said 2024 would likely be his "last year" on tour. But Saturday, he threw a curveball at his pre-French Open news conference where he said: "It's a big, big chance that going to be my last Roland Garros, but if I have to tell you it's 100% my last Roland Garros, sorry, but I will not, because I cannot predict what's going on."

That caused tournament organizers to shelve any Nadal tributes, just in case he was coming back next year.

All the while, he was there in the draw, unseeded, looking to add his remarkable haul of 14 French Open men's singles titles and 22 Grand Slams. He was handed a brutal draw, up against Zverev.

Zverev entered Roland Garros as one of the pre-tournament favorites, having won the Rome Masters on May 19. But his build-up to Roland Garros has been dominated by questions about his hearing in Germany which starts on May 31 relating to allegations of domestic abuse. He denies the charges and will not attend the hearing.

Monday's matchup on Philippe Chatrier was their first meeting since the 2022 French Open semifinal. It was a closely fought test, only for Zverev to be forced to withdraw from the match at the end of the second set with a serious ankle injury.

Zverev wanted to make amends for that this time around and he started the quicker of the two, forcing three break points on Nadal's serve in the first game, and converting at the first ask. Nadal found his way more into the match, but Zverev's serve stood strong with his forehand on point. Nadal forced two break points at 2-1 down, but Zverev saved both and despite some glimpses of the old Nadal breaking through, Zverev remained in control of the set, punishing any loose Nadal backhands, and broke the Spaniard again to take the first set 6-3.

Nadal still had the crowd in the palm of his hand; each forehand winner was answered with a cheer to rival any we'll hear here in the next fortnight, but Zverev stayed locked in at the start of the second set, holding to love. It seemed to be going the way of the German, but at advantage in the fourth game, Nadal converted a brilliant forehand and celebrated with his trademark hop, jump and fist pump all in one movement. The crowd rose as one, and Nadal continued riding that wave into the next game, where he finally got a hold of Zverev's serve for his first break of the match. But crucially, Zverev got a foothold back in the match, broke to make it 5-5 and stayed resolute through the tiebreak to take the second set 7-6 (5).

At this stage, Zverev's first serve was running at an impressive 81%, but Nadal forced three break points in the second game of the third set, and converted the third with a brilliant forehand down the line. It prompted yet another trumpet fanfare from the brass band who have followed Nadal for most of his career at Roland Garros, but Zverev halted any hopes of a fightback, breaking Nadal back in the following game and then breaking again in the seventh. Zverev held his own serve to open up a 5-3 lead thanks to a wonderful backhand passing shot, which even Nadal applauded. Nadal needed to serve to stay in the match, but Zverev forced two match points as he moved the old master from corner to corner and a loose Nadal forehand put the final full stop on the match.

"I was ready to build my game and my confidence day by day," Nadal said afterward. "But I never had [those] days, of competition, because I faced a very tough opponent. Probably today I needed him not playing a great match.

"I played I think at a good level in all ways, comparing to the way that I was playing the weeks before. So, happy for that. Of course disappointed for losing, but in terms of body feelings, happy that I finish healthy, you know, and I had a tough battle out there. And I was ready for a little bit more."

Zverev paid tribute to Nadal after the match. "Thank you, Rafa, from all of the tennis world, it's such a great honor," Zverev said. "I've watched Rafa play all my childhood and could play him when I became professional. I don't know what to say, it's not my moment, it's Rafa's moment."

Nadal is still hopeful of one last hurrah at Roland Garros when Paris 2024 starts.

"If I keep enjoying doing what I am doing and I feel myself competitive and healthy enough to enjoy, I want to keep going for a while," Nadal said. "I don't know for how long, but I want to keep going for a while, because [his family] are having fun, I am having fun, and I need to see, I need to give myself a little bit longer chances to see if my level is growing and my body is holding, and then let's make a decision.

"But give me two months 'til Olympics, and then let's see if I am able to keep going or I say, OK, guys, it's more than enough. Let's see."