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14-time champion Rafael Nadal knocked out in first round of likely last French Open

Rafael Nadal leaves the court after losing during the first round of the 2024 French Open. (Jean-francois Badias/AP Photo) Rafael Nadal leaves the court after losing during the first round of the 2024 French Open. (Jean-francois Badias/AP Photo)
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PARIS -

The noise was loud and relentless, a chorus of thousands of belting out “ Ra-fa! Ra-fa! ” whenever their guy found the occasional moment of brilliance of the sort he has conjured up so often at the French Open and elsewhere through the years.

The 15,000 or so on hand roared their support when Rafael Nadal stepped out into Court Philippe Chatrier on Monday, voices echoing under the closed roof of a place he called “magical for me.” When the 14-time champion at Roland Garros approached the net for the prematch coin toss. When he took his swings during the warmup. And, especially, when he whipped his trademark topspin lefty forehand or chopped his two-fisted cross-court backhand or placed a volley perfectly to claim a point.

The problem for Nadal, and for his fans, is that there were not nearly enough such points for him against Alexander Zverev. Not enough vintage play to allow his nearly 38-year-old, oft-injured body to claim one more victory, no matter how much the folks in the stands tried to will that to happen. And so he lost 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in the first round of the French Open to Zverev in what might turn out to be Nadal's last match at the clay-court tournament he dominated for so long.

“If it’s the last time that I played here,” Nadal said, “I am at peace with myself.”

It is the first time in his long and illustrious career that Nadal has been beaten in two consecutive matches on clay courts — he lost to Hubert Hurkacz at the Italian Open on May 11 — and the first time he has dropped a match earlier than the fourth round at the French Open.

“The last two years, I have been working and going through probably the toughest process in my tennis career with the dream to come back here. At least I did,” Nadal said. “I mean, I lost, but that’s part of the business.”

He had indicated 2024 likely would be his last season, but he said Saturday he is not absolutely certain he be at the French Open again. He reiterated that after only his fourth defeat in 116 career matches at the place.

“I am not saying I am retiring today," said the Spaniard, whose 1 1/2-year-old son, Rafael Jr., sat on his mother's lap in the stands.

While Nadal said it's doubtful he'll enter Wimbledon, which he won twice and starts on July 1, he did note he hopes to return to Roland Garros later that month, when the Olympics' tennis competition will be at the French Open site.

Monday's match ended in anticlimactic fashion, with the 22-time Grand Slam champion unable to play his customary way after 1 1/2 years of hip and abdominal injuries. He had hip surgery during the 2023 French Open, the first time he missed it since winning his debut there as a teenager.

“My body has been a jungle for two years. You don’t know what to expect,” Nadal said. “I wake up one day and I (felt like I had) a snake biting me. Another day, a tiger.”

Spain's Rafael Nadal reacts as he plays against Germany's Alexander Zverev during their first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Monday, May 27, 2024. (Jean-Francois Badias / AP Photo)

Nadal, who turns 38 on June 3, has been limited to 16 matches and an 8-8 record since the start of last year. His infrequent play dropped his ranking to No. 275, and he was unseeded for the French Open for the first time; he'd never been anything worse than the No. 6 seed in 18 previous appearances.

That is why Nadal ended up facing the No. 4-seeded Zverev, the runner-up at the 2020 U.S. Open, a gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics and the only man to reach the semifinals in Paris each of the past three years.

Nadal's other losses at Roland Garros came against Robin Soderling in 2009, and against Novak Djokovic in 2015 and 2021.

Djokovic, owner of 24 major championships and the man Nadal played against more than any other, sat in the stands Monday, as did younger stars Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz. Also there: Nadal's uncle, Toni, who used to be his coach. Not surprisingly, it was difficult to spot so much as a single empty chair anywhere in the arena on what many realized could be a historic occasion.

Here and there, when Nadal was able to come up with the goods and get the better of his opponent, he would yell “Vamos!” and throw that celebratory uppercut that became so familiar, from the days of muscle shirts and Capri pants to Monday's look of sky-blue sleeves and standard-length white shorts. His numerous and vocal supporters would respond in kind, thrusting their fists in the air right along with him or shaking their red-and-yellow Spanish flags or clapping to the beat of a drum.

If Nadal put a ball into the net, or sailed one wide or long, the groans of disappointment filled the chilly air. Between points, especially when he was trying to navigate a difficult spot, it was so quiet that a pigeon’s coos were audible from a corner of the stadium.

Nadal began shakily, with a misplayed drop shot and a double-fault contributing to getting broken at love. He got broken again to end the first set.

The 6-foot-6 (1.98-metre) Zverev is a talented player coming off a title on clay at the Italian Open. The 27-year-old German leverages every bit of his long legs and considerable wingspan to cover the court well and unleash tough-to-corral groundstrokes.

As he plays in Paris, he is awaiting Friday's start of a trial in a Berlin court related to accusations of domestic abuse made by an ex-girlfriend. Zverev does not need to be present at the court and has said he won’t be there.

On Monday, there were two stretches, albeit brief, where Nadal looked as though he might be able to find enough muscle memory to make this a close contest.

In the second set, right after he flubbed a backhand and hung his head, Nadal faced a pair of break points that would have put Zverev up 3-1. Nadal escaped, using a 116 m.p.h. (187 km/h) ace and a 117 m.p.h. (188 km/h) service winner to hold, before breaking for a 3-2 lead.

Roars.

Not so fast. Nadal served for that set at 5-4, but Zverev broke at love, then was superior in the ensuing tiebreaker.

At the start of the third set, Nadal again erased a pair of break points, then broke for a 2-0 lead with an on-the-run forehand. He pumped his fists, gritted his teeth and screamed, “Vamos!”

More roars.

Spain's Rafael Nadal leaves the court after losing against Germany's Alexander Zverev at the 2024 French Open. (Thibault Camus/AP Photo)

Once more, though, Nadal failed to sustain it and soon was back at 2-all. Zverev broke to lead 5-3, and that essentially was that. Nadal said his body felt as well as it has in a while during practice, and he finally could move without limitations, but he hasn't been competing enough lately.

“To hold your level (with) this amount of energy, this amount of concentration,” he explained, “you need to be playing often.”

Addressing the fans directly, Nadal said: “The feelings that you made me feel here are unbelievable. I really hope to see you again, but I don’t know. Merci beaucoup.”

And with that, he gathered his bags and headed to the locker room, but not before stopping to look around. He applauded right back at those applauding him and saluting him with one final chant.

“Ra-fa! Ra-fa!”

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