Rafael Nadal: Has Roland Garros seen the last of its greatest champion?

Rafael Nadal after his first-round Roland Garros loss to Alexander Zverev (Imago/MAXPPP)


Rafael Nadal departs Court Philippe Chatrier after his first-round Roland Garros loss to Alexander Zverev (Imago/MAXPPP)

Rafael Nadal: Has Roland Garros seen the last of its greatest champion?

Seye Omidiora 20:28 - 27.05.2024

The 14-time French open winner exited at the first round for the first time but showed enough against Alexander Zverev to prove he retains his revered competitive spirit.

Two years after claiming his 14th title at his favourite Grand Slam, Rafael Nadal returned to Court Philippe-Chatrier.

The Spaniard was back after an injury-ridden two years since last appearing at a Major in Australia last year, keen to have one final push in what is expected to be his last shot at Roland Garros

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal won his 14th Roland Garros title in 2022 (Imago/ABACAPRESS)

Nadal would not explicitly state — pre-match or on court post-defeat — that this year’s French Open would be his final one, and Monday’s first-round showing against Alexander Zverev proved why this Slam and this court are his dearest.

Rafael Nadal vs Zverev

The draw was not the most favourable, as Nadal faced his earliest exit against a man he probably hoped to avoid after events of the 2022 semi-final. Zverev battled for two incredible sets before rolling his ankle at the culmination of the second, exiting in a wheelchair.

The German had unfinished business against the greatest clay court player the sport has ever seen. 

Facing the motivated No. 4 seed so early meant Nadal would have to play at the highest level so early into his beloved Slam, meaning he would have to answer questions about his physical level he probably had no answers to without first building momentum — an upshot of being unseeded on his return to Paris. 

Indeed, events preceding this year’s Roland Garros did not fill fans with much confidence.

The 14-time French Open champion was only competing at his fifth tournament in 2024, and his fourth on clay following appearances in Barcelona and ATP 1000 events in Madrid and Rome, making the last 16 in his home tournament before losing to Jiri Lehecka. 

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal was given a guard of honour as he departed the Madrid Open for the final time (Imago/ZUMA Wire)

Nadal reiterated non-stop that playing in Paris would only happen if he was in the physical condition to do so. At 37 (he turns 38 in June), his court coverage is not what it once was and injuries have taken a heavy toll, but he retains the battling qualities that elevated him to the pinnacle of men’s tennis. 

Losing the first game on serve was a false start fans dreaded, fearing it could be a walk in the park for the German No. 4 seed. However, Nadal overcame that slow start to land a few proverbial punches as the first set wore on, roared on by a partisan Philippe-Chatrier crowd.  

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal showed some of his best tennis against Zverev (Imago/PanoramiC)

It seemed like everyone was present to witness the top match of this year’s first-round draw. World No. 1 and statistically the greatest tennis player of all time Novak Djokovic was in attendance.

As was Carlos Alcaraz, the supposed present and future of the sport, Iga Swiatek, the women’s champion seeking a third straight title in Paris, and former world No. 7 Marion Bartoli, a semi-finalist at Roland Garros and erstwhile Wimbledon champion. 

Even Manchester City’s Rodri was not left out, the midfield man present in Paris only 48 hours after his team’s disappointing FA Cup final loss to Manchester United in London. 

Manchester City midfielder Rodri was in Paris to watch Rafael Nadal's first-round match against Alexander Zverev (Imago/HMB-Media)

None were disappointed, as they witnessed Nadal displaying why he is the darling of anyone who knows their tennis in Paris. The Spaniard’s first set ended in eventual disappointment, and the following two went to Zverev, seeing Nadal lose in straight sets at Roland Garros for only the second time since the Djokovic defeat in 2015. 

Nonetheless, it could have played out differently. Nadal saved a couple of break points in the fourth game of the second set before breaking the Zverev serve for the first time in the next one, precipitating loud cheers on Centre Court. 

The 37-year-old had capitalised on a momentum shift to go up a break in the second set and served at 5-4 to level proceedings. However, the German broke back to deflate the almost one-sided crowd and took the set in a tie-break, opening a two-set lead.

Nadal, only ever two sets down in that 2015 loss to Djokovic, was in unfamiliar territory. In his prime, you would have backed him to mount a fightback. Against an opponent that recently triumphed in the Masters 1000 event in Rome and has made it to three consecutive semi-finals at Roland Garros, you sensed the 22-time Grand Slam winner was fighting a losing battle. And he was. 

“It's difficult for me to talk. I don't know if it's going to be the last time that I am going to be here in front of you, honestly," said Nadal after his three-hour battle with Zverev. "I am not 100 per cent sure, but if it's the last time, I enjoyed it. 

Rafael Nadal
Alexander Zverev is the first player to beat Rafael Nadal in the first round at Roland Garros (Imago/GEPA pictures)

“The crowd has been amazing during the whole week of preparation and today. The feelings that I have today are difficult to describe in words but for me, it's so special to feel the love of the people the way that I felt, in the place that I love the most."

For the second time in as many days, Nadal effectively would not be explicit about his future. You sense the 37-year-old hopes to return, even if he understands the present limitations he has to battle and the hurdles to overcome if he desires a 2025 shot in Paris.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal after his first-round Roland Garros loss to Alexander Zverev (Imago/HMB-Media)

Everyone hopes for one last dance, keen to witness a narrative-laden deep run and a chance to say a proper goodbye. Monday highlighted the monumental work Nadal went through to participate in this year’s French Open, which was a pipe dream months back. 

If the Zverev loss really is the end, it was a pleasure to watch the greatest clay court player the sport has ever seen compete at his favourite playground one final time.