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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Monday, May 27, 2024


Rome ruler Alexander Zverev beat Rafael Nadal 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3 in what is likely the king of clay's final Roland Garros match..

Photo credit: Aurelian Meunier/Getty

Unleashing one final forehand that sailed long, Rafael Nadal went down swinging.

Nadal poured passion onto Court Philippe Chatrier.

More: Osaka on Facing Swiatek

A focused Alexander Zverev delivered poise and power hitting Nadal right out of Roland Garros 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3—in what is likely the greatest clay-court champion’s final French Open match.

The fourth-seeded Zverev joins world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and Swedish power player Robin Soderling as only the third man in history to defeat Nadal at the French Open.

In the end, the king of clay was the king of hearts.

More than 15,000 fans, including Wimbledon winner Carlos Alcaraz, stood and saluted Nadal with a rousing standing ovation showering the Spaniard with love and cheers.

Showing grace and class in defeat, Nadal thanked his family, friends, fans and praised Zverev for a quality performance.

“Incredible the amount of energy; it’s difficult for me to talk. I don’t know if it’s gonna be the last time I am here in front of all of you,” Nadal told the crowd afterward. “Honestly, I am not 100 percent sure but if it is the last time I enjoy it.

“The crowd has been amazing during the whole week of preparation. The feelings I have today are difficult to describe today. For me so special to feel the love of the people in this place…

“I have to congratulate Sasha for this great match and last week's victory in Rome and I really wish you all the best for the rest of the tournament. 2022, I know has been a super tough moment for you and you deserve more. So many congratulations to you and all the best.”

If this is in fact the final chapter in Nadal’s storied French Open career, he finishes with an astounding 112-4 Roland Garros record, a record 14 Roland Garros titles and a lifetime of show-stopping moments, including firing a phenomenal forehand strike in the final set today.

The end of this first round match was the end of an era.

It is Nadal’s first French Open first-round loss in 19 career appearances and marks the first time he’s lost back-to-back clay-court matches in his historic career.

Though this is very likely Nadal’s final Roland Garros farewell—-”it’s a big percentage I will probably not be back,” he said—he left the door open slightly for a potential return.

In fact, two-time Olympic gold-medal champion Nadal, if healthy, plans to play this summer’s Olympic Games at Roland Garros, partnering Alcaraz in a Spanish doubles dream team.

“I have been going through a very tough two years in terms of injuries I went all through this whole process with the dream to be back here in Roland Garros,” Nadal said. “The first round hasn’t been the ideal one so I needed something else.

“I was competitive, I had my chances, it was not enough against a great champion like Sasha. For me it's difficult to say what’s going on in the future. For me it’s a big percentage I probably will not be back here in Roland Garros, but I am traveling with the family having fun and the body is feeling a little bit better than two months ago.

“I think maybe in two months I say it’s enough, no, I can't give anything else but it’s something I don’t feel yet. I hope to be back on this court for the Olympics—that motivates me that’s great to have another chances and I really hope to be well prepared.”

A resilient Nadal, ruler of so many memorable Sundays in Paris, played with warrior’s spirit, but a resolute Zverev hammered the tournament’s greatest hero with buzz-kill brilliance.

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Zverev served 77 percent, denied nine of 11 break points and hit 10 more winners—44 to 34—frequently surprising the Spaniard with his forehand firepower.

"To be honest I don’t know what to say. Thank you Rafa from all of the tennis world, it’s such a great honor," Zverev said on court. "I’ve watched Rafa play all my childhood.

"I was lucky enough to play Rafa when I became professional. I was lucky enough to play him two times on this beautiful court. Today, is not my moment, it’s Rafa’s moment. So I’m not going to speak much."

This match was a rematch of the 2022 semifinals.

Two years ago, Nadal advanced to his 14th Roland Garros final after Zverev crashed to the court suffering a gruesome right ankle injury that forced him to retire with the Spaniard leading 7-6(8), 6-6.

A tearful Zverev left the court in a wheelchair that day, but was flying high today.

Chomping on the gold chains around his neck after key winners, the Olympic gold-medal champ played with conviction in the face of the overwhelmingly pro-Nadal crowd.

Though Nadal had won seven of their prior 10 clashes, Zverev carried the confidence from winning his second Rome crown earlier this month.

More importantly, Zverev unleashed the heavy-metal thunder repeatedly firing his forehand down the line at critical stages to force the 14-time champion to defend.

Typically, Zverev does damage with his imposing first-serve and bold backhand—sometimes stepping around his forehand to hit his two hander, a play favored by former French Open champion Maria Sharapova—but today the German’s ferocious forehand down the line was one of the biggest shots on the court.

Nineteen years after a 19-year-old Nadal defeated Mariano Puerta to capture his first Roland Garros championship, he looked pumped for his return.

Before a packed house that included world No. 1 reigning champions Novak Djokovic and Iga Swiatek, Wimbledon winner Carlos Alcaraz and several former standouts, including former French Open finalist David Ferrer, Nadal showed spirited fight in his first major match in 495 days—and first since undergoing hip surgery last June.

Bouncing up and down in his customary high kangaroo hops, Nadal was jittery in the opening game. The left-hander double faulted to face triple break point, prompting fans to break into a “Rafa! Rafa!” chant in encouragement. Nadal put a backhand into the middle of the net to cede a love break.

The former world No. 1 went up 15-30 and had a clear look at a forehand pass that would have given him break points, but he floated it long. Zverev cranked a heavy backhand blast that helped him hold to consolidate.

Stabilizing, Nadal worked through a challenging hold to get on the board in the third game then earned double break point in the fourth game. Zverev denied both, including whipping a forehand down the line on the second break point, then blocked a forehand volley for 3-1.

Zverev was rocking forehands down the line stamping a love hold in the fifth game. Nadal answered with sharp-angled forehands holding in the seventh game as his entire family in the support box—including Uncle Toni Nadal—shouted encouragement.

Nearly untouchable on serve winning his second Rome championship earlier this month, Zverev deployed the serve and volley, a backhand drive volley and ace, exploiting Nadal’s deep return positioning in holding for 5-3.

A collective groan erupted from fans as Nadal sailed a backhand to face a second set point. Nadal saved it with a wide serve. Reading an excellent dropper from the Spaniard, Zverev raced up to the dipping ball and bunted a soft forehand pass down the line for a third set point drawing applause from Nadal.

When the king of clay knocked a forehand into net, Zverev sealed a one-set lead after 50 minutes.

The two-time Rome champion set the tone on first serve, serving 78 percent, winning 14 of 18 first-serve points and firing an average first-serve speed of 126 miles-per-hour that give Nadal little to work with on return.

The two-handed backhand is Zverev’s signature shot, but his free-flowing forehand down the line was a key stroke at times today. A leaping Zverev laced the baseline with a forehand drive down the line holding with a bang for a 2-1 second-set lead.

Digging in with defiance, Nadal fended off a pair of break points earning a hard-fought hold for 2-all and celebrating with a leaping uppercut into the air. That eruption prompted a roar from fans who were chanting “Rafa! Rafa! Rafa!”

The owner of 63 career titles answered the call. Nadal backed Zverev up then sifted a slick forehand drop shot winner earning his first break of the day for 3-2 after 75 minutes.

Serving at 4-3, 15-30, Nadal conjured classic king of clay magic. Attacking net, Nadal repelled a Zverev running forehand blast with a brilliant forehand dig volley. Had he failed there, Nadal would have faced double break point.

Instead, the exchange fired up Nadal who dabbed a forehand drop volley winner. A sliding forehand dig from Nadal coaxed an error as he responded with resilience for 3-5.

Serving for the set at 5-4, Nadal played it a little safe on forehand and paid a steep price. Zverev smoked a backhand winner down the line that nearly knocked the cover off the green microphone at the back wall then fired a pair of flat forehand strikes breaking at love to level 5-all.

The fourth seed fought off two break points holding for 6-5 before Nadal stamped a love hold to force the second-set tiebreaker.

Watching from the stands, Wimbledon winner Alcaraz had his head on his hand as Nadal evened the breaker, 3-all. Zverev committed the cardinal sin of approaching crosscourt—when the line was open—but got away with it making a volley dig for 4-3.

In the 19-shot rally that followed, the lanky German read Nadal’s defensive dropper and put a forehand down the line for 5-3. You can understand why Zverev was reluctant to approach down the line. When he did on the next point, Nadal crushed a crosscourt running forehand pass winner that electrified the crowd. Nadal again resorted to a mediocre dropper and got burned as Zverev smacked his two-hander down the line for two set points.

On his third dropper, Nadal hit a winner to save a set point but netted a return to end a dramatic breaker. Zverev snatched a two-set lead after two hours.

Desperately needing to make a stand, Nadal summoned the warrior within with some fine front-court play to save two break points holding to start the third set.

The stand stirred Nadal and the fans. The 22-time Grand Slam champion converted his third break point for a 2-0 lead.

Each time Nadal pushed, Zverev shoved right back. On the full stretch, Zverev unloaded a bullet backhand down the line for break points. Attacking net, Zverev dug out a low volley then the 6’6” German soared for a high backhand overhead—scraping the very top of the frame—with a fantastic flick to break back in the third game.

Iconic idols can intimidate and inspire.

In this case, Zverev has faced Nadal 11 times, frequently practiced with the Spanish superstar and was even coached by Nadal and rival Roger Federer during a key Laver Cup match.

All that experience means Zverev knows better than any of us how dangerous even a wounded Nadal is and gave him no reprieve.

Bolting a brilliant backhand pass down the line, Zverev scored the crucial break for 4-3.

Muting a potential uprising, Zverev leaned his entire body into a staggering sharp-angled backhand winner holding for 5-3.

On match point, Nadal sailed a final forehand ending a three hour, five-minute battle. A stoic Zverev, out of respect for one of the greatest to ever play any professional sport, showed almost no reaction.

"I went on court with the strange feeling that I'm gonna be playing first round in Roland Garros, I will not be favorite, and that's the true," Nadal told the media in Paris. "But, you know, I went on court with the idea of fight for the match, to put the level, the energy there, and just hope that the opponent don't play at his best, because always first round is tough.

"For me, it was difficult to show a much better level than today in this particular moment in this first round, because I played for moments at I think a very good level, but in other moments I missed. But that's something that is 100% normal when you are not playing tournaments in a row, when you are not playing these kind of matches since almost two years."

Fans, including former No. 1 Alcaraz, stood and saluted Nadal with a standing ovation as his wife, Mery, held their son, Rafa, Jr. in the support box.

Nineteen years after a 19-year-old Nadal defeated Mariano Puerta to capture his first Roland Garros championship, he likely closed the curtain on his historic career with a wave and smile of gratitude.

Call him King of Clay. Call him Humble Warrior. Call him the Ultimate Fighter.

On this day call Nadal, who got one of the worst possible draws, grateful for this extraordinary career and emotional embrace he received from fans on exit.

The king of clay’s parting words weren’t about championships or his time at the top.

Instead, Nadal showed his character paying tribute to the people who were there showing support on his remarkable Roland Garros journey.

“The amount of feelings I had on this amazing court throughout my tennis career is just unbelievable,” Nadal said. “I never imagined as kid that I will be here at last last 38 years old something I never could dream about.

“It has been a very beautiful process. All the memories every single year has been different. What makes it so special is all the people at Roland Garros behind the scenes helping me the support of all my people family, team, friends everybody who was there.

“Last thing, all the people the feelings that you made me feel here are just unforgettable. Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I really hope to see you again but I don’t know. Merci beaucoup.”


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