Rafael Nadal, the French Open and the uncertainty of the King’s last stand

Nadal waves to the crowd during a practice session at Roland Garros  (Getty Images)
Nadal waves to the crowd during a practice session at Roland Garros (Getty Images)

The voice of Roland Garros, Marc Maury, is preparing for his big moment for what could be the final time. As the master of ceremonies on Court Philippe-Chatrier, the largest of the show courts at the French Open, part of Maury’s duties during the tournament is introducing the players as they make their way out on court. Most of the time, this is a straightforward assignment; many of the names slip by over the chatter of the afternoon crowds.

But when it comes to Rafael Nadal, Maury’s role is transformed into a performance; a goosebumps moment as his announcement builds to a powerful crescendo. As for all former winners, Maury does not just announce the number of French Open titles they have won, but enumerates the years as well. Maury’s voice is deep as it begins to rumble: “Champion de Roland Garros en deux mille cinq, deux mille six, deux mille sept, deux mille huit…”

And on and on, until the voice of Roland Garros reaches Nadal’s 14th and last title in Paris, “deux mille vingt-deux”. Most players are introduced to Philippe-Chatrier within half a minute but by the time Nadal’s roll-call is complete, Maury can take more than 90 seconds, all of which add to the Spaniard’s legend. His historic resume of titles, and the manner in which they were won, is what made the boy from Mallorca and the French capital such a special combination.

On Monday afternoon, there may be a particular edge to Maury’s voice as it begins to reverberate around Court Philippe-Chatrier, the sound of Nadal’s unprecedented dominance at the French Open carrying that extra weight. This was the day that was signalled as the most significant stop on Nadal’s farewell tour when he said late last year that this season was probably going to be his last. And yet, it may not be. Nadal has long possessed the ability and strength of character to endure and he revealed: “I don’t want to close, 100 per cent, the door.”

Though, at the same time, the door could close at any moment, should the pain from a difficult injury layoff return. “It’s a big, big chance that it’s going to be my last Roland Garros,” Nadal said. He is set to return to Paris later this summer, if he decides to compete at the Olympics. Either way, it was the French Open and Roland Garros that stood as the tournament of Nadal’s career, the record 14 titles defining his greatness on clay.

And yet, Nadal will require every ounce of his indomitable aura when he faces the fourth seed Alexander Zverev in the opening round. It is a truly unbelievable draw and there were audible gasps during the ceremony when Nadal’s name was pulled out of the hat next to Zverev’s: it is staggeringly early in a grand slam for such a heavyweight contest, to add to what was an important day for the Spaniard anyway.

Zverev is arguably the favourite for the fortnight given the uncertainty around the other top seeds: defending champion Novak Djokovic has not won a title this season and is openly admitting to being “worried” about his form, while Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner have had their preparations disrupted by injury. Zverev, meanwhile, won the title in Rome and has a good record at Roland Garros with three appearances in semi-finals.

That perhaps his most significant came against Nadal adds another layer to the blockbuster. Zverev was in a position to become only the third man in French Open history to beat Nadal at the French Open after splitting two gruelling sets in the 2022 semi-final, only to break his ankle in a freak injury that saw the German leave the court on crutches. The 27-year-old has spent much of the two years since rebuilding his form and confidence, as well as facing allegations of domestic abuse from a former girlfriend. Zverev was served a fixed penalty order from a Berlin court last November and his trial is set to begin during the French Open. Zverev denies the allegations and does not have to attend the trial in person.

Nadal and Zverev met in the 2022 semi-finals, with the German breaking his ankle (AP)
Nadal and Zverev met in the 2022 semi-finals, with the German breaking his ankle (AP)

Zverev insists the looming trial date is not on his mind and points to his Italian Open title as evidence of that. "Of course on paper, it’s not the best draw," Nadal said, while Zverev talked up the historical challenge he is about to face. "In my mind, I’m going to play peak Nadal," Zverev said. “That’s what I expect him to be. I expect him to be at his absolute best. I expect him to play the best tennis he’s played in a long time on this court.”

That hasn’t been the case, so far, in Nadal’s latest comeback. It has not been easy at times, and after a year on the sidelines in 2023 and with his return delayed in January, age has appeared to have caught up with a great champion. There has been the usual determination and intensity but Nadal is visibly slower and is being hit through from the baseline. There were the one-sided defeats to Alex De Minaur in Barcelona and Hubert Hurkacz in Rome - good players, both, but the sort of top-10 opponents Nadal would have swept aside with barely a glance in years gone by.

In some ways, it reflects back to Nadal’s last triumph in Paris 2022, when he defied his foot injury by putting it to sleep before each match. That title, which featured a classic win over Djokovic in the quarter-finals, was unexpected, even with Nadal’s history. The sense that each match could have been his last added to his humility after beating Casper Ruud to win his 22nd grand slam. Two years later, Nadal is bidding to defy time once again. The aura remains, the records too, and when Nadal is introduced onto court, Roland Garros will shake as if it is the last time.