Rafael Nadal leaves door open to French Open return following first round loss to Alexander Zverev

In what is possibly his final appearance at the French Open, 14-time tournament winner and Roland Garros legend Rafael Nadal was knocked out in the first round by No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev 6-3 7-6(7-5) 6-3 in three hours and five minutes.

Zverev’s straight sets victory perhaps puts an end to one of the greatest love affairs in the history of sport. Nadal, the ‘King of Clay,’ walked off Court Philippe-Chatrier to a thunderous ovation befitting his remarkable record in Paris, which now stands at 112-4.

Some of tennis’ biggest stars – and Nadal’s rivals – were in attendance to watch this piece of history; Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Świątek, a self-confessed Nadal superfan, were all there to see the Spanish gladiator battle it out in front of an adoring crowd.

One final dance?

“It’s difficult for me to talk,” Nadal said in his on-court interview after the loss. “I don’t know if it’s going to be last time I’m going to be here in front of you. I am not 100% sure, but if it is the last time, I enjoyed it.

“The crowd have been amazing in the whole week of preparation. 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 place I love the most.

“The first round wasn’t the ideal one,” he added of the draw against Zverev. “I was competitive, I had my chances, but it wasn’t enough against a great player like Sascha. For me, it’s difficult to say what’s going on in the future.

“It’s a big percentage that I will not be back here playing at Roland Garros, but I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I’m traveling with the family, having fun and the body is feeling a little bit better than two months ago.”

Nadal remains unsure about his future in tennis. - Thibault Camus/AP
Nadal remains unsure about his future in tennis. - Thibault Camus/AP

Nadal, who added that he was hoping to be back on Chatrier for the Summer Olympics, has struggled with injury since the 2023 Australian Open and was forced to miss the vast majority of last season as he tried to get his body ready for one last year on tour.

But Eurosport pundit and two-time Roland Garros finalist Àlex Corretja said Nadal had told him only last week that his body was feeling pain free for the first time in two years, leading him to think about potentially returning next season.

Understandably, the French Open holds a special place in Nadal’s heart and the 37-year-old did everything in his power to ensure that he was not only fit enough to play, but fit enough to compete at the highest level.

He certainly did that at times in his defeat to Zverev. At the start of the third set, a couple of trademark forehand winners were whipped down the line, drawing a deafening roar from the crowd that almost blew the retractable roof off Chatrier.

Even in the second set, Nadal found an early break of serve as the momentum appeared to be shifting after the German had taken the first, but he was unable maintain that level and Zverev fought back to take the set in a tie break.

Zverev is one of the favorites to win this year's tournament. - Yves Herman/Reuters
Zverev is one of the favorites to win this year's tournament. - Yves Herman/Reuters

There was potential for the tide to turn again at 2-2 in the third when Nadal held a grueling 12-minute service game and fended off four break points, only for Zverev to break the Spaniard’s next service game.

Even staring defeat in the face, Nadal – famed for his tenacity and grit – never stopped battling for every shot, pumping his fist towards the crowd each time he won a point.

In the end, though, Zverev was just too good; so good was one of his shots that Nadal couldn’t do anything but applaud as it flashed past him.

Maybe, he would have gotten there if he was 10 years younger.

“I never could imagine when I was a kid that I will be here with almost 28 [years of age] – 38, I would love to be 28,” he said with laughs from the crowd.

“I couldn’t have dreamed it. It’s been a beautiful process, all the memories have been different, but nonetheless special. The feelings that you make me feel here are unforgettable, thanks very much from the bottom of my heart.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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