Zverev sends Nadal to emotional Paris farewell

Nadal suffered his fourth career loss on the Parisian clay

Rafael Nadal, first round, Roland-Garros 2024©️Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Chris Oddo

Time will tell if we’ve just witnessed the last match of Rafael Nadal at Roland-Garros. Time stood still for those in attendance on Monday in Court Philippe-Chatrier.

They were treated to a spectacle they’ll never forget.

Fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev handed Nadal a 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3 defeat on Monday afternoon, the 27-year-old German becoming the first man to defeat Nadal before the fourth round at Roland-Garros and joining Robin Soderling and Novak Djokovic as the third man to defeat Nadal on the Parisian clay. 

“To be honest I don’t know what to say,” Zverev said on court after his win, before handing the mic to the Spanish legend. “First of all, thank you Rafa, from all of the tennis world. It’s such a great honour. I’ve watched Rafa play all my childhood, and I was lucky enough to play Rafa when I became a pro, I was lucky enough to play him two times on this beautiful court. 

“Today is not my moment, it’s Rafa’s moment.” 

Fans were packed into Court Philippe-Chatrier, with world No.1s Novak Djokovic and Iga Swiatek among them to witness one of the most heavily anticipated opening-round matches in tournament history. 

Nadal, ranked 275 at the moment, had never played Roland-Garros unseeded, and never faced a top-10 player in the first round. He had also never lost consecutive matches on his beloved clay, but Zverev changed all that with a command performance. 

“It’s true that the first round has not been an ideal one,” Nadal said after the match. “I had my chances but it was not enough against a great player like Sascha.” 

Roof closed, roof raised 

Those without tickets were huddled in the Place des Mousquetaires, nestling in their parkas with beverages of choice on a chilly day, practically within whispering distance of the statue that bears 14-time Roland-Garros champion’s iconic image.  

Nadal, who fell to 112-4 lifetime at Roland-Garros with the loss, gave his faithful fans plenty to cheer about across the contest, but it was three-time semi-finalist Zverev who held the heavier hand in the key moments as he notched his second clay-court victory over the 22-time Grand Slam champion, and improved to 29-8 lifetime at Porte d’Auteuil. 

Thunderous chants rang through the bowels of Chatrier with regularity during the pair’s 11th meeting, Nadal’s feverish fans doing their best to raise the closed roof that covered the court for the entirety of the match. Determined Zverev kept Nadal’s faithful from getting too unruly in the early going, however, as he broke Nadal in the first game of the match before wrestling the opening set with a second break of serve at the 50-minute mark, 6-3. 

Rafael Nadal, first round, Roland-Garros 2024©️Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Zverev too tough

The second and third sets followed a different path to a similar end. 

Nadal charged to life in the fourth game of set two, saving a pair of break points for 2-2 and breaking for 3-2 as chants of “Rafa! Rafa!” could be heard echoing across the grounds. 

Urged on by the faithful, the Spaniard clung to the lead for a spell, but couldn’t ward off his determined adversary, who broke at love for 5-5 and eventually claimed a tense tiebreak to take a two sets to love lead. 

There were chances galore for Nadal, which is testament to just how far he has come since making his return to the tour in April at Barcelona. Though defeated, he left us to wonder what might have been had he had a few more weeks to prepare. 

Alexander Zverev, first round, Roland-Garros 2024©️Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

But Monday’s match was Zverev’s for the taking, and he braved the magnitude of the contest with aplomb, rising to the occasion and matching the legendary Spaniard whenever the situation called for it. 

Faced with another deficit in the third set, Zverev wrestled control from Nadal once again, rallying from 2-0 down, winning six of the final seven games to close out his victory in three hours and five minutes. 

It was a brilliant contest, full of drama, quality and tension. The only shame, of course, being that such a high-profile contest happened so early in the Paris fortnight. 

After the match Nadal was sent off properly by the fans, who chanted his name for several minutes before he took the microphone to address them, and his future plans. 

“The amount of feelings that I had on this amazing court during all my tennis career is just unbelievable,” Nadal said. “I never dreamed I would be here at almost 38 years old, with all the success I had here, winning so many times – it is something that I never dreamt of. 

“For me it’s difficult to say what will happen in the future. It’s a big percentage that I won’t be back at Roland-Garros, but I can’t say 100 percent. I enjoy playing here, I like traveling with the family, and my body is feeling a little bit better than it did two months ago.” 

For now, Nadal will look to continue testing himself against the best players in the world, with plans to be back in Paris for the 2024 Olympic Games. 

“I hope to be back on this court for the Olympics,” Nadal said with a smile. “That motivates me.”